Writing letters might seem like an out-of-date way to communicate when we have easy access to relatives and friends through text, email, FaceTime and Zoom. Yet, snail mail is a powerful way to connect with others during the pandemic.
Based on recent research by the United States Postal Service (USPS), 65% of people agreed that receiving mail lifted their spirits and about 67% said they have sent or would send mail to family and friends.1
Letter writing may have gained more interest because it’s a reflective, slowed-down activity, rather than another quick chore. You can dash off a text in seconds, without paying much attention. But it takes time and purposefulness to send letters.
While letter writing may be an old-fashioned way to keep in touch with people, this form of correspondence shows intention. You have to compose the letter, get an envelope, find a stamp and send it from your mailbox.
Learn about some of the powerful benefits of writing and sending letters during the pandemic.
Friends and Relatives Feel Valued
Recipients recognize that it’s harder to communicate through this method and appreciate the time invested.
People feel special and valued when they receive personal letters. This is especially true during these trying times when we’re physically distanced from loved ones who live across the country or on the other side of the world.
In that same USPS study, 61% of respondents found that “mail is extra special during this time of social distancing” and 54% of respondents found that communication via snail mail fostered a “more meaningful connection to those they sent mail to.”
Writing Is Healing
James W. Pennebaker, the Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in the field of expressive writing. He has written extensively about the positive benefits of writing in both articles and books including Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion and Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval.
With proven positive benefits, there are various ways to use writing as a constructive tool during the pandemic. For example, you could write in a journal, a popular way to express feelings and thoughts. Journaling helps you process the upsetting news you hear, make sense of it and ultimately cope with it. Journaling is also beneficial in managing stress.
Letter writing is another form of writing that’s especially helpful in processing difficult things. “I’m a psychotherapist and writer,” says Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW and author of four books. “I often recommend that my patients write letters to themselves and others. Whether they send the letters or not isn’t necessarily the point.”
She continued, “For example, let’s say I have a patient we’ll call Diane who has childhood wounds that keep getting triggered. Meaning when someone makes a comment that is upsetting, the pain she feels goes deeper than the thoughtless remark, opening wounds that still fester. I will suggest that Diane write a letter to her younger self, ‘Little Diane,’ who suffered these grievous wounds. Many studies show that writing is a healing act.”
It’s therefore very beneficial to use letter writing to share with, to confide in and vent to your friends or relatives as we go through rough times. Frustrations or sadness about the pandemic can then be expressed as you write to caring people in your life.
Receiving letters of reassurance in return from your grandparents, for example, who may have lived through other difficult periods in history, may help you feel reassured.
Recipients of reassuring letters feel more optimistic about getting through challenging times.
It Slows Down Our Communication
Letter writing, compared to digital exchanges, slows down our communication. Our society has become bombarded with rapid news and an expectation of rapid responses.
During the pandemic, our understanding of COVID-19 as well as the knowledge gained by scientists change by the minute. We’re attuned to quickly-changing situations regarding our childcare and our children’s schooling, racial protests and reckonings, earthquakes and storms, as well as political tumult. This makes for a barrage of stressors. As a result, our mental health has, understandably, become taxed.
Slowing down our communication is a big plus. With overflowing inboxes, we race to respond and move on to the next email. When we open our home mailbox, it’s unusual to find something that’s not a bill—a positive surprise. In the past, people anticipated, looked forward to and got excited about receiving letters.
To find a letter in the mail, sit on the couch and read something handwritten by a loved one is rewarding nowadays. We can take our time. We don’t need to multi-task with various items open on our laptop; rather, we focus on this one personal thing, this letter in our hands. We get the refreshing benefit of slowing our mind and body down.
It Lessens Screen Time
Due to work-from-home situations and the inability to see our relatives and friends, we are connecting predominantly through screens.
Some of us have relied almost exclusively on electronic conversations. It’s therefore understandable that we are exhausted by Zoom meetings and FaceTime happy hours. Thus, letter writing has become an old-but-new-again alternative.
Letters Are Tangible
It’s no surprise why people are baking bread, working on puzzles and showing more interest in crafts while the virus limits our ability to get out. During a time of social distancing and increased loneliness, when we can’t hug our family members or hold an elderly friend’s hand, we reach for tangible ways to enjoy life. Writing a letter is creating something tangible and enjoyable, too.
You write letters with a pen and paper and the recipient can physically open and hold onto a letter. Our elders, especially in nursing homes and those living far away from family, feel isolated and depressed due to the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions.
Letters, even those merely about daily activities, are comforting and are opened with enthusiasm.
Letter Writing Connects Strangers
Letter writing can also connect strangers in beneficial ways. A recent New York Times article reveals the burgeoning growth of Pen Pal programs around the world during COVID-19.2 Especially popular are intergenerational programs matching children and seniors.
With limited interactions during the pandemic, seniors are developing a slew of negative conditions. Dawn Carr, PhD, a sociology professor at Florida State University and faculty associate at the Pepper Institute for Aging and Public Policy for the elderly, underscores that many seniors feel isolated and lonely during these restricted times.2
Feelings of isolation contribute to poor mental health outcomes including higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and development of dementia.
Pen pal programs serve as a way to increase their interactions in a safe and beneficial manner.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is adversely affecting the mental health of children and teenagers, too. From not seeing friends at school if they’re studying at home to being disappointed by sports and other extracurricular activities being curtailed, they too are anxious and depressed.
These pen pal programs, especially intergenerational ones, forge connections and benefit children and young adults alike. The lost art of letter writing unites people and is a boon to those of all ages.
Letter Writing Connects Loved Ones
While all kinds of letters can connect people, one of the best kind of letters you can send someone dear to you is a letter of gratitude. Expressing gratitude through a card or letter especially lightens the hearts of your recipients.
I often tell patients to express gratitude for what you have versus dwelling on what you don’t have. It helps people focus on gratitude.
— SHERRY AMATENSTEIN, LCSW
It takes extra effort to write and send a letter, but Amatenstein says “It’s a lovely gesture. You have to think ‘What do I want to say to express appreciation?’ I suggest you’re specific and heartfelt. For example, you can write, ‘I really appreciate that you came once a week during the pandemic. You shopped and delivered groceries to me, risking your own health. Your generosity means a lot to me.”
Amatenstein adds, “So many studies show the psychological well-being benefit of actually expressing gratitude. Especially when we are in this sad and lonely place, focus on someone else’s kindness and thank them for it.”
Letter writing offers many benefits and is a rewarding practice that’s back in style. In its most basic form, it can help us maintain family ties and friendships, and share news. But it can also help us express our feelings of anxiety, gratitude and hope. Letter writing also helps us connect with strangers and deepen our connections with loved ones.
Unlike daily and disposable digital communications, these letters provide a history of our relationships that we can go back to and treasure. Letters take on more significance in an age of electronic communications. Letter writing creates a more lasting form of communication, too.