Have you written your thank-you letters yet? No, I don’t mean a text or an email but an actual letter?

I consider it a vital part of the post-Christmas ritual, although I know many people regard it as an outdated practice.

But showing your appreciation for someone’s thoughtfulness is more than just good manners, it’s a boost to one’s mental health, too. Psychologists call it ‘gratitude therapy’ and it helps us focus on the pluses in our lives, and the people who love us enough to give us gifts.

It has grown out of a branch of psychotherapy called ‘positive psychology’, which represents a shift from traditional approaches that tend to focus on the problems in our lives. 

Positive psychology, in contrast, is all about exploring the good stuff — the things we should be grateful for.

If this sounds a bit new age and somewhat un-British to you, I sympathise. The approach has rather been hijacked by U.S. therapists and given a bit of nauseating spin.

As a result, we see endless saccharine social media posts from people giving thanks for everything from the cream in their coffee, to a sunbeam, or the puppy they saw on their way to work.

This detracts from the sound psychological theory underpinning gratitude therapy, which is so much more than a schmaltzy slogan on a fridge magnet. Studies have shown a robust association between high levels of gratitude and long-term mental well-being.

It works on several levels. By focusing on the positive, we reduce toxic emotions such as anger, frustration, envy and regret. Research shows that saying thank you helps solidify friendships, improves empathy and reduces interpersonal conflict.

It can also lead to new relationships — increasing one’s social networks and boosting mood.

Developing this sort of mental strength helps limit self-pity. This is because people who express gratitude are less likely to compare themselves unfavourably to others. Instead, they are able to appreciate the achievements and good fortune of others.

Showing gratitude can also protect against other mental illnesses. A survey of Vietnam veterans found that those who displayed high levels of gratitude for having survived the conflict had significantly lower rates of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and drug and alcohol use. A study of survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attack found similar results.

So how do you actively introduce gratitude therapy into your life? Advocates recommend we set aside some time each day — say, 15 minutes — during which we reflect on the positives. The key is taking time and really thinking about everything you are grateful for. Write it down so you have a physical, tangible focus.

Which brings me back to thank-you letters — one of the best examples of gratitude therapy in action. A 2016 study at Indiana University found that depressed patients who wrote regular thank-you letters to loved ones showed better outcomes — including changes on brain scans consistent with people in recovery.

Writing thank-you letters has also been shown to improve cardiac health in people with heart failure, and reduce pain in cancer patients. One study found that teenagers who wrote thank-you letters were generally more health aware.

Putting pen to paper is superior to a text or email because it takes longer and requires more thought. The very act of writing is, in itself, a sustained focus on the positive.

Of course, life can be tough and there are undoubtedly times when we need to focus on our problems in order to understand and address them. But this upbeat psychotherapeutic approach is a useful reminder of just how much we have to be truly thankful for!

DrMax@dailymail.co.uk

I’ve never been a fan of Dry January and the belief that you can ‘make up’ for drinking too much over the festive period by stopping for a month to give your liver a break. That’s not how it works.

If you’re worried about your drinking, it’s far better to make a commitment to moderate it in the long term rather than stopping for what is a relatively short period, and then resuming bad habits.

However, perhaps I should have a rethink. I have been reading some new research showing that a month of abstinence has a positive impact on health — but not in the way you’d imagine. It’s not your body it helps so much as your mind.

Researchers at Leeds University found that while public health campaigns have traditionally focused on the negative aspects of drinking — the adverse consequences to health — to persuade people to stop, the Dry January initiative emphasises the positive benefits, such as better quality of sleep, weight loss, improvements in your skin etc.

Having experienced these, people are more likely to drink less once January is over — as confirmed by another study at Sussex University. 

Researchers found that people who did Dry January reported they were drinking far less seven months later. Cheers to that!

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