The science behind happiness: Emotions flow as students read letters of gratitude

Published 8:20 am Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Balazs Bruckner, right, listens to teacher Tim Knoester in calculus class at Niles High School Monday morning. The students recently studied the correlation between happiness and gratitude. Leader photo/CRAIG HAUPERT

Balazs Bruckner, right, listens to teacher Tim Knoester in calculus class at Niles High School Monday morning. The students recently studied the correlation between happiness and gratitude. Leader photo/CRAIG HAUPERT

Kylee Myer held the cell phone tight to her right ear and rubbed the tears from her eyes as she read the letter to her grandmother.

“All the things you taught me when I was little turned into major factors that kept my life on track and are making me able to succeed right now,” said the Niles High School junior. “You are a great woman and everyday I am thankful to have you in my life.”

When Myer hung up the phone she was overcome with a wave of relief that she said is difficult for her to explain.

“I actually didn’t want to do it at first because I’m not really big on sharing feelings — it doesn’t come easy to me I guess,” Myer said. “I’m glad I did it because I felt better knowing she actually knew how I felt. I don’t think she knew she made that big of an impact on my life.”

Myer was one of approximately 100 students who recently completed a project studying the connection between happiness and gratitude in Niles teacher Tim Knoester’s pre-calculus and AP calculus classes.

Each student was asked to write a letter to someone that has influenced him or her greatly. Knoester said most students chose a family member, teacher or coach.

After writing the letter, Knoester told students they would be videotaped as they read the letter to the person by phone.

Prior to writing the letter, students completed a survey that measured their level of happiness. Then, after reading the letter, they took the survey again.

Knoester said the purpose was to see if students were happier after showing gratitude by reading the letters.

The results were staggering.

“There was a pretty dramatic increase in all classes,” Knoester said. “We saw a strong correlation between being able to express one’s gratitude and the person’s level of happiness.”

Knoester watched each video and noticed a common theme throughout.

He said most students were tense and emotional while reading the letters. Afterward, he said, their sadness changed to pure joy, with many students laughing or crying happily.

“It was a very emotional event to be able to express that gratitude toward someone,” Knoester said. “I’d say about 75 percent were either crying or showing real strong signs of emotion.”

Senior Balazs Bruckner, who plays football and throws the shot put for Niles, said he isn’t used to showing much emotion. When he read the letter to his grandmother, Darlene, he could be seen sniffling and said he held back tears.

“I was nervous. I didn’t know how it was going to go or if I would make it through it,” he said. “She’s a great woman. She is one of the people that always told me I could do anything I wanted to do and encouraged me to stick with it.

“You can write it and it doesn’t have an effect on you until you read it aloud to that person. That’s when you start to notice how much emotions go into it.”

Balazs said Darlene lost her husband about a year ago. Balazs lived with her for a couple months afterward to help his grandmother get over the loss.

“She lived in that house for 40 years with him and I didn’t want her be there by herself,” he said. “We got really close — closer than we were before that.”

Although Balazs didn’t see the results of his happiness surveys, he said he felt happier after reading the letter to his grandma.

“I think it did have an effect,” he said.

After the second survey was taken, students learned about the science of happiness and analyzed the data between the two surveys.

Knoester said their informal lab confirmed what professional scientists have already studied.

“The goal was for students to be able to analyze data and also for them to be aware that being able to express gratitude does have an effect on your level of happiness,” he said. “It gives them a better outlook on life. It is very visual when you see the person read the letter. You can see their attitude change and it puts things in perspective.”

It was Knoester’s first time doing the experiment. He said family members teaching at other schools had tried the project and encouraged him to do so.

“I am absolutely amazed at how well it went,” he said.