Does Anyone Write Letters Anymore?

What makes a good letter?

Posted Dec 19, 2009

One of the staples of positive psychology is the gratitude letter: a written and specific expression of thanks to someone who has been especially kind or important to you who has never heard you express your gratitude — parents, siblings, other relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, teammates, employers, and so on. Over the years, I have asked students in my positive psychology classes to write such letters. If they cannot deliver it by hand, they should mail it. As a positive psychology intervention, gratitude letters “work” 99+% of the time, by which I mean that the recipients are touched, usually profoundly, and so too are the letter-writers, despite misgivings they may have had in the first place about doing something that seemed so corny.

In the last few years, though, I have encountered shocking questions after making the assignment: “How much does a postage stamp cost, and where can I get one?”

I realize that postage stamp prices keep increasing, and I realize that neighborhood post offices are closing down. I also realize that many people now pay their bills on-line or through automatic bank account deductions. Nonethless, my reaction to such questions is always WOW!

This blog entry is not about postage stamps but about letters. Does anyone write them anymore? I am quite sure that the answer is fewer and fewer people. With the holiday season upon us, I have seen more than a few stories about the decline in post office business, not just the catalogues that used to clog our mailboxes but also the cards and letters that used to brighten the season.

I think this is a shame, and I am guilty as anyone. I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter to someone. However, I do remember the last few letters I received, vividly and fondly. Two were from colleagues of mine at the University of Michigan who wrote to me about recent events in my life, and one was from a student for whom I provided a recommendation. Mind you, many other people communicate with me, by phone or by e-mail, but these three letters are what I remember. I have read each one many times, savoring them. I keep them on my desk, midst flashdrives and paperclips, and I will continue to reread them any time I want to feel good or until they become too faded to be legible.

What makes a good letter? For me, a good letter is personal and personalized. A good letter takes time to write. The thing about writing a letter is that no one can multitask while doing so, unlike e-mails or telephone calls. A letter represents undivided attention and is precious as a consequence. Oh yes, a good letter is handwritten, not a cut-and-pasted, global searched-and-replaced bit of faux intimacy. It need not be written on fancy stationery or an expensive card — the three letters I have been cherishing were written on plain notebook paper! And a good letter is one that required the writer to find a stamp and an envelope and a postbox!

I gave a media interview last week in which I was asked how people might approach the upcoming holiday season if they were on a tight budget. My answer was simple: Write letters.

By the way, right now (December 2009), a stamp costs 44 cents (see http://www.usps.com/prices/).

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