When I was a child, I hated the tedium of writing thank-you letters. ‘Why can’t I just phone them to say thanks?’ I’d protest. ‘Because people enjoy receiving letters,’ my mum would explain. Now that I’m an adult, I get it. There’s nothing like picking up a proper, hand-written letter from the doormat, complete with a wonky stamp and sealed with love.
These days, my own post tends to consist mainly of brown envelopes and estate agent circulars. And I’ve come to miss those scrawled missives, often illegible but always sent with purpose and meaning.
Like most of us, I blithely fire off emails all day long – 2015 research shows we send around 80 personal emails per day. I frequently send postcards through Touchnote (you type out your message, they send it), which means my pen is largely redundant.
Recently, I was asked to pen a letter to a stranger on the subject of happiness for an anthology called Dear Stranger, published by Penguin on behalf of the mental health charity Mind. I understand the potency of a letter, however, I can’t recall the last time I posted somebody an actual, physical, ‘tear open the envelope and feel the paper’ letter (research also shows that we receive just one personal letter every seven weeks). And as for receiving one? My mum probably sent me the last one I received, and she died in 2011. When I think about how ‘real’ post with its scrawls and stamps makes me feel, I long to experience that joy again.
Rediscovering ‘real’ post
That’s when I decided to sit down and try to rediscover the lost art of writing letters for myself. I figured that if I long to receive them, surely I need to send them, too? But is there actually any point in writing letters?
Research shows that there is. Not only does the person on the receiving end benefit, the letter-writer does, too. Positive psychology guru Martin Seligman says that writing a ‘letter of gratitude’ can help both the writer and recipient and can also improve both physical and emotional health – something proved by studies. The effects can last for weeks.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies looked at the effects of writing letters of gratitude on happiness, life satisfaction and depression. The study asked 219 women and men to write three letters over a three-week period. Lead author Steven Toepfer discovered that letter-writing had a cumulative effect: ‘If you write over time you’ll feel happier and more satisfied, and if you’re suffering from depressive symptoms, your symptoms will decrease.’
Harley Street psychologist Dr Becky Spelman adds: ‘The simple act of writing a letter can be incredibly healing and cathartic for both the sender and the receiver, as it taps into a very personal part of our psyche and opens up a side of many people that often stays locked away.’
Pick up that pen
Not only that, but how you write it seems to matter, too. Penning it by hand rather than on a computer can aid memory, for example. A 2011 study by Professor Anne Mangen, from the University of Stavanger in Norway, found that putting pen to paper seems to imprint knowledge in the brain far more than using a keyboard and a computer monitor.
Writing down your feelings can also see physical wounds heal faster by helping the writer to make sense of events and reduce distress (according to a 2013 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine). Dr Spelman says: ‘Research strongly suggests that sender reactions to a handwritten letter are more emotionally engaged than if a letter is created digitally, so if the desired outcome is to communicate on a very personal human level, then it would suggest that this method is more successful.’ And, she adds, the effect of doing it just once can last for weeks.
So that was that – the evidence seemed compelling. I decided to write a letter to my friend Jen, whom I first met in the dark early days of having lost my baby son. She has been there through some of my bleakest times and, thankfully, some fun ones, too. However, our lives are so busy, I feel like I’ve never really taken the time to tell her what she means to me.
I visited a high-street stationers, bought some writing paper and envelopes and sat down to write the letter by hand. At first, it was quite a strange experience – no cutting and pasting, or deleting clumsy sentences. I discovered that I was severely out of practice but I ploughed on anyway, hoping that Jen would see that it’s the sentiment that counts.
Then one night, Jen and I met up and I read the letter out to her as she sat opposite me (Seligman’s research shows this has the most positive effect). We ended up crying and laughing, reflecting on our time together as friends and realising how lucky we were in our friendship. Seligman was right – my ‘letter of gratitude’ was definitely good for both of us. And not only that, one sheet of handwritten paper seemed to have more power than a thousand emails ever could.
After that I wrote a couple more, including one that could never be sent: the ‘recipient’ was my mum, who died four years ago. On the anniversary of her death, I lit a candle, sat with a photo of her holding me as a baby and read my letter out loud, thanking her for giving me life and teaching me about humour, kindness and love.
A letter a day
Deborah Watson, 37, a PR executive from Suffolk, decided to write a letter every day in 2013 after receiving one herself the previous Christmas. ‘The knowledge that I had to write a letter would make me take time out to calm down, turn off distractions, take a pen and paper and articulate what was in my heart and head at that time,’ she explains. ‘It also reminded me how easy it is to make someone smile and to spread joy through an unexpected activity. It really isn’t about giving huge gifts or grand gestures. The whole process also reminded me that the written word is incredibly powerful.’
Compared to Deborah, my efforts are paltry – I’ve managed a total of five letters so far. But already I’m feeling the benefits. As well as improving my handwriting (an unexpected spin-off!), writing letters makes me calmer and happier. Most importantly, it feels like I’m seizing the day instead of letting time pass without telling people how much they mean to me.
MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com