Gina Hamadey was the travel editor at Food & Wine and Rachael Ray Every Day and started her career at the O, the Oprah Magazine, and George. She founded the content and social strategy firm Penknife Media, and has written for The New York Times, Real Simple, and Women’s Health, among other publications.
Her new book, I Want to Thank You: How a Year of Gratitude Can Bring Joy and Meaning in a Disconnected World (Amazon, Bookshop), chronicles her year writing 365 thank-you notes to friends, family, strangers, neighbors and more.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Gina about happiness, habits, and gratitude.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Gina: Writing thank you notes and gratitude letters. In 2018 I sent out 365 gratitude notes to friends, family, neighbors and strangers. Every month I turned to a new group of recipients, including career mentors, favorite authors and healthcare workers. Most of these notes were not very long (some were written on postcards)—three or four heartfelt, specific sentences. Writing heartfelt gratitude notes feels like a combination of meditation and therapy: My breathing and heart rate slows down (there are scientific studies that show that to be true), and a calm, meditative focus comes over me.
Here’s the story of how I launched what I call my Thank You Year: I had just finished a batch of thank you notes to donors to my City Harvest fundraiser, and I was surprised at how good that process felt. I was sitting on the train reflecting on that, and noticed that I had written 31 cards, one for every day so far. What if I kept it up?
While I am no longer keeping up that one-a-day pace—technically I would write 10 or 15 at a time, but you get the idea—I still sit and write a note of gratitude when I want that dose of calm, joyful focus. And that year trained me to recognize grateful thoughts, hold onto them a little longer, and share them with the people responsible—if not in a letter, then via text or email or in person. That habit has made me a happier person.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
The way you speak to yourself matters. This might be embarrassing, but I often use terms of endearment when I talk to myself, which I do in the second person (apparently not all that common?). “Okay, honey, you can do this.” “You’ve got this, babe.”
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
In the year I sent out 365 gratitude notes, I was surprised at how frequently I heard something along the lines of, “I am going through a hard time, and this helped.” By approaching people in this vulnerable way—it’s not cool, telling someone you haven’t seen in years that you still think about them—I made space for them to respond in kind.
Also, I expected or at least hoped that writing these notes would get me back in touch with people I hadn’t spoken to in awhile. I was surprised at how powerful it was to express gratitude to the people closest to me, including my husband, to whom I wrote a thank you note every day for a month.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
As the former travel editor at Food & Wine and Rachael Ray’s magazine, a huge part of my identity has been tied up in food and booze—being able to sample anything and everything and have an opinion on it. As I approached 40, that approach wasn’t working for me anymore. The biggest sign was, oddly, my eyes, which were inflamed to such a degree that I couldn’t wear contacts for nine months, and I needed to take a heavy dose of antibiotics. I started experimenting with my diet and realized that I don’t do well with gluten, sugar or dairy. Dairy! I wrote a nacho cookbook! But once I started feeling better—more energy, better sleep, brighter skin—those changes really haven’t been so difficult to stick to. I attribute my resilient attitude to my Thank You Year. Instead of pining for pasta and ice cream, I am focused on the health benefits and all the foods I am still able to enjoy (guacamole, steak, French fries with mayo).
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m an Upholder. How else would I have stuck to sending out 365 gratitude notes in a year when I had a full roster of clients and two kids four and under?
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” That’s from Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which was, I believe, the first play I saw on Broadway after moving to New York at 21 years old, so it made a real impression. I think about that quote all the time. If I’m feeling down, what am I missing—time with friends, or by myself, or with a good book? Have I exercised, and hydrated, and slept?
The day that I came up with the concept of the Thank You Year on the train, I wondered whether the timing was right for this project, what with a busy docket of clients and two kids at home who were four and one. The reason that I did it anyway was because of that concept. I felt like I was operating in triage, tending to the neediest client or child or bill, and I wanted to find a way to reconnect to the parts of myself that were left behind. I was intentionally shifting my weight.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
I read both Jane Goodall’s Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating (Amazon, Bookshop) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Amazon, Bookshop) in 2007 with my food-related book club, and those books changed the way I grocery shopped and cooked. This was before “local” and “sustainable” were in the public lexicon, and I remember feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t before given thought to the provenance of my food—and I worked at a food magazine! We still plan our weekly meals around our Sunday farmer’s market visits thanks to that mindset change.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Gratitude does not equal toxic positivity, to use a term that’s trending on Instagram. A gratitude habit does not mean pasting a smile atop your misery. You can feel all human feelings—rage, despair—and then return to a gratitude practice that helps you see what’s beautiful and joyful, and appreciate the people who make your life better. Gratitude is powerful medicine.