THE BLOG
01/03/2015 12:04 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Thank You Notes: The 5 Essential Life Lessons

There is no greater gift for parents to give their children or for any of us to give our friends and family than the gift of gratitude, and that begins with thank you notes. If you have not already done so, take a quiet moment to think about the blessings of the season and write a thank you note to everyone who made it special for you.

This is one communication that can only be done old school -- no emails or texts. It has to be on paper, in an envelope, and mailed. The experience of writing a thank you note does as much for the sender as the receiver.

There are at least five essential life lessons from thank you notes.

1. Everyone can write a thank you note. Even a toddler can make some lines on paper, help pick out a pretty stamp, and lick the envelope. This helps create a sense of ownership, confidence, contribution, and autonomy.

2. Thank you notes develop empathy. At this time of year we think a lot about what we want and how we feel about what we get. It is important to learn to think about the feelings of those who take the time to try to please us. As we write our thank you notes, we imagine their point of view. That helps us to become more compassionate and thoughtful.

3. Thank you notes strengthen communication skills. In school, in the workplace, and in relationships with friends and family, no skill matters more than the ability to communicate clearly, sincerely, and thoughtfully. A prompt, well-written note on nice stationery with specific details and impeccable grammar and spelling is like showing up neatly and appropriately dressed or demonstrating excellent table manners. It conveys maturity, reliability, confidence, and thoughtfulness. And those are the qualities that inspire those around you to trust you, respect you, and want to help you.

4. Thank you notes remind you about what matters. There is no better way to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and increase your own sense of joy. It is easy to notice what we do not like about a gift when it is not what we hoped or or when it seems to communicate a lack of understanding or even disapproval. And maybe the gift was thoughtless. But when we sit down to write a thank you note we have to locate within ourselves some way to be grateful and find some way to express it, an exercise ideally suited to centering and expanding the soul. We do not find happiness in what we get. We find happiness in being grateful for what we have.

5. Thank you notes are a delight to receive. In the midst of junk mail and bills, it is a rare and very great pleasure to see an envelope with a familiar return address and know there is a real letter inside. Taking the time to send a real letter shows that the gift and the giver mean something important to you. There is no other way to convey this message that comes close. You can even write to people you do not know. If a performer or a politician or someone in business does something you like, write a note. It will let them know they are appreciated and supported and encourage them to do more.

A good thank you note must have specific details about what is most appreciated. Not, "Thank you for the sweater. It is cool," but "Thanks for the sweater! That bright red is perfect with my favorite jacket and it is just what I need to stay cozy when we go to football games." Not, "Thanks for the game," but "We had a blast playing that game. My brother won the first time but then I discovered a strategy and had the great satisfaction of coming out ahead four times in a row." Not "Thanks for having us for dinner," but "It was so nice of you to remember how much I love those cheese biscuits. It was all I could do to leave some for everyone else." I enjoy writing thank you notes for gifts I love, but I have had the most fun coming up with creative ways to say thanks for some gifts I can only describe as outlandish or downright weird.

The best thank you notes include a sentence or two about what is going on in your life and some thoughts about the addressee as well. "We're all looking forward to some quiet days at home before school starts again a week from Monday. I hope to see you soon and get an update on your new job."

There are a lot of places to help you learn to write better thank you notes. In Washington, D.C., the National Archives hosted a thank you note writing contest for children on Dec. 30, 2014. Children had the opportunity to learn and practice their thank you note writing skills, as a part of the Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures exhibit.

But the best way is to read some correspondence from people you admire. The all-time champion might be former President George H.W. Bush, whose thousands of thank you notes over the years showed that he noticed and appreciated a wide range of contributions and accomplishments. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's 2014 new year's resolution was to write at least one thank you note every day. I hope as he announces his 2015 resolution, he gives us an update on his experience, and I hope he keeps sending thank you notes.

I'm guessing Zuckerberg has discovered, as I have, that the more thank you notes you send, the more you become aware of how much there is to be grateful for, and how good it feels to let people know you appreciate them.