Gina Hamadey gets the impact of the written word. A former editor, Gina honed her skills at O, The Oprah Magazine, Rachael Ray Every Day and Food & Wine, among others. Last year, Gina, now a content strategist, decided to try her hand at a different medium: thank-you notes.
During her “Thank-You Year” project, which she documented on Instagram, Gina expressed her appreciation in one handwritten note every day, to family members, childhood friends, doctors, neighbors, favorite authors…even a Trader Joe’s employee.
Three hundred and sixty-five letters later, she’s come to understand the power of praising it forward.
Gina chatted with Bare Necessities about setting ambitious goals, getting out of your own way and the tangible benefits of gratitude (including a new pair of shoes)….
Q: How and why did you start your Thank-You Year?
A: I got a freelance gig in January of last year out in New Jersey. I live in Brooklyn. It was an hour train ride, and I spent that hour mostly scrolling through my social feeds, as we all tend to do. It felt like wasted time.
Meanwhile, I had a bunch of thank-you notes to write for this fundraiser I did for City Harvest. As part of the incentive, I promised donors that my son and I would write them a little thank-you. When I was writing those, it felt really good, like an antidote to the scrolling.
“When I was writing, it felt really good, like an antidote to the scrolling”
With my editorial background, something clicked. I wrote 31 notes; there are 31 days in January. I felt like I needed to keep that up. So I sat down and thought about what each month could be dedicated to. That in and of itself was really fun. It was like this meditation on what’s important to me and what I wanted to honor.
Q: What did it take to see it through?
A: Anytime an obstacle came up, I would try to push it away. For example, in the beginning, I got really nice, expensive cards, which was obviously not sustainable. So I got a giant box of pretty, colorful cards—I think it was $20 for 100—and that was one obstacle, gone. Another obstacle was the deadlines I made up. I’m always a month behind, and I realized that’s fine. I had to remember these weren’t real deadlines, and I’m thanking people for things that happened years ago, so if I had to take a couple of extra weeks, it was okay.
Q: Do you think the Thank-You Year would have had the same impact if you were emailing or calling people instead?
A: I just had a strong sense that I wanted to do it this way. When it’s paper and pen, I find I have total focus, and I think that has had a real benefit to me. It feels really good for my brain, which is scattered so much of the time. It might only take three minutes, but it’s three minutes of pure focus. You’re thinking about this person, your relationship with them, what that person did for you. It doesn’t need to be poetic or take a long time, but you do need concentration to say that thing in a meaningful way.
That said, if you have something to tell somebody that’s inside of you and you want to express it, even if it’s 10 years later, it’s absolutely better to write an email or pick up the phone than do nothing at all.
Q: What makes for a good thank-you note?
A: I don’t necessarily recommend planning it out because again, that can be an obstacle. If I felt I had to plan every one of these things and then take that extra step of opening up a Word document to outline my thoughts before writing it, I would never do it.
Just spend a minute or two thinking about what you want to say before you write it. Be really specific. And this kind of writing is good if it’s from the heart. Steer away from clichés and generalities—you’re the best, your restaurant was the best. What about it was the best? That’s all there is to it.
“I have always loved that feeling of daring yourself to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable”
Q: Was it ever awkward handing or sending someone a note?
A: There’s absolutely a feeling of vulnerability with almost all of them. There’s always a moment where I think, Well, this is the least cool thing I can be doing. I’m writing a thank-you note to somebody I haven’t seen in 15 years. I’m writing a fan letter to a novelist I like. It’s awkward. I don’t want to bother anybody. It’s not a comfort-zone moment…and I think that’s part of its appeal. I’m always somebody who’s liked pushing myself. I have always loved that feeling of daring yourself to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Q: What was the most interesting response you’ve gotten?
A: The reactions have been so great. It’s funny because I don’t spend much time thinking about that part. In my food-themed month, I thanked this chef in Palm Springs named Tara. She runs Cheeky’s, a great place. She wrote me an email back and said, “Hey, I’m going to be in New York next week.” I said, “Well, why don’t you come for dinner?” It was a lovely night. I complimented her shoes on the way out, and she asked me my size. Then the next week she sent me the shoes. I’m wearing them now!
Q: Besides in shoes, are people paying it forward?
A: On my Instagram, a lot of people have told me that they’ve started a thank-you month, a thank-you year. They’ve written a career mentor because I had this wonderful mentor month. A librarian at a high school in Virginia DM’d me saying, “Your posts inspired me to start Thankful Thursdays.” In her library, she sets out thank-you notes for the kids to come during lunch and recess and write to people who have done kind things for them. I sent that librarian a box of stationery, and she said the kids loved using the fancy stuff instead of the index cards she was giving them.
Q: What did you get out of this past year? Will you resolve to continue in 2019?
A: I’ve gotten so much out of it on a lot of levels. Spending so much time focusing on 365 positive things that people have done for me, then reestablishing connections with people that I love or like or have impacted me in some way, has changed my outlook for the better.
Also, the act of sitting down and writing is therapeutic for me. I’ve been thinking about how I’ve developed a thank-you practice like a meditation or yoga practice. I’m going to move forward with it and try to think about what that would mean if I’m not giving myself deadlines and if I’m doing it in a more freeform way.
Q: Why do you think gratitude is such a powerful force?
A: The gratitude thing reminds me of that famous Mr. Rogers quote, “Look for the helpers.” Good people are always there, you just have to find them. As far as my own life, there’s so much good, and it’s easy to forget because I have a 5 year old, a 2 year old, a business, I’m busy, and it’s easy to spiral into negativity and craziness. The Thank-You Year was my way to slow it down.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GINA
Favorite bra: The Spanx Bra-llelujah T-Shirt Bra is straight-up the most comfortable bra I’ve ever put on. It’s maybe more comfortable than not wearing a bra.
Greatest extravagance: Sleeping in. My husband and I trade off every Saturday and Sunday, where one of us gets to sleep in and the other one takes the morning shift.
Secret to living well: Cooking for people you love and having a conversation.
Personal hero: JK Rowling. She was a single mom and poor, then she had this idea, sat down in a coffee shop and started writing on napkins. It turns out she’s an absolute genius who’s changed the lives of so many people and given them so much joy.
Current obsession: Podcasts. I walk for a half hour a day and listen to Slow Burn…so good!
Personal mantra: I have one with my son, which is, “I can do it. Nobody knows how strong I am!”
If I weren’t a writer, I would be: A social scientist.
In a word: Optimistic.
PJ is the editor of Washington Family magazine, a blogger and a content creator who has written for Reader’s Digest, BHG.com, the Property Brothers blog and more. Her favorite claim to literary fame: having a style question printed in Lucky magazine.