The bottom drawer of my desk contains two things: stationery to write letters, and notes from others that I've received in the past few years. On top of everything in the drawer is a three-page letter, forwarded to my writing partner and me by the publisher, from a woman who wrote that she was grateful for the female-centric history book we wrote. In my attic is a box of more notes that have been sent to me over the years, letters from former students I taught, teens I worked with in my church's youth group, friends who have moved away and others. Many of these are thank-you notes.

I don't keep the general thank-you notes I receive that simply thank me for a gift, although I certainly appreciate those. What I keep are notes and letters that go beyond the acknowledgment of a gift, ones that get personal. I appreciate them because they remind me that I'm important to others. A recent study in the journal Psychological Science called Undervaluing Gratitude, Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation, finds I'm not alone in my gratitude for this gesture.

The study was practical. Researchers conducted three different experiments in which participants wrote letters of gratitude — ones that went beyond thank you for a gift — and predicted how they thought the recipients would feel when they read them. What the researchers found was that those who wrote the letters "significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel."

In essence, many people don't write notes or letters of gratitude because they underestimate how much someone else will appreciate their gratitude. By not expressing their gratitude in writing, they miss out on the opportunity to do something that will positively affect both their well-being and the well-being of the person it's directed to.

What holds us back?

checking mailbox Don't worry about how well you write; just send a letter of gratitude and make someone's day. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

The New York Times reports that it's not simply underestimating the impact a letter of gratitude can make that keeps us from writing them. Many people are worried about how they write, believing the recipient will judge their writing. However, the research found letter writers also underestimated the lack of judgment recipients have. Researchers said most recipients didn't care how the notes were phrased; they were more interested in the sentiment. And the recipients judged the sender's writing competency higher than the writers expected.

Research says there should be little to hold you back from writing a note or a letter of gratitude, but if you're still unsure of your abilities, The Spruce has some tips for writing a thoughtful thank-you note, giving a basic outline while reminding writers they still need to use some of their own wording. And this is the important part: your personal words of appreciation that go beyond "thanks for the ..." are what will help make someone's day and positively affect their well-being.

The basic outline is simple:

  • Show gratitude with words like "Thank you for ..." or "I am grateful for ..."
  • State the gift or act you're grateful for.
  • Mention your reason for being thankful. This is where your own words come in, those personal words that will mean the most to the person you're thanking.
  • Add a closing statement that ends the note with something geared toward the person you're writing to that's appropriate for the level of relationship you have with that person.
  • Sign the note, again with a closing that's appropriate for the relationship. The Spruce suggests using words such as "love," "warmly," "friends always," "pals forever" or "affectionately" before you sign your name. (My personal closing is often "peace and love.") When thanking someone you have a less personal relationship with — say in a business setting — closings such as "with gratitude," "with thanks" or with thanks and appreciation" are appropriate, according to The Balance Careers.

What are you waiting for? Grab a piece of paper and pen and tell someone you're grateful for them and explain why. It doesn't have to be a three-page letter. A couple of paragraphs will do. You'll make yourself and the recipient feel good.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.