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The art (and psychology) of writing letters by hand

BY Dr Max Pemberton

15th Mar 2023 Life

The art (and psychology) of writing letters by hand

Sending handwritten letters may have fallen out of fashion, but has surprising benefits for helping your health and enriching your relationships, muses Dr Max

I know it might sound a bit old-fashioned, but I’m a great believer in the power of letters. There’s something unique and special about handwritten things.

Yet the letter has rather fallen out of vogue, not helped of course by the recent Royal Mail strikes, and been superseded by faster forms of communication like emails or texts.

"It’s a powerful and memorable way to touch the ones you care about. People keep letters for years"

But that misses the point of the letter. It’s not to convey urgent news. You write an email because there’s something you need to know. But you write a letter because there’s something you want to say.

There’s also a subtler aspect to the letter. It’s a powerful and memorable way to touch the ones you care about. People keep letters for years.

How handwriting letters benefits your mind

Handwritten love letterBecause handwriting letters is slower and more methodical, psychologists argue that it is good for your focus

When my gran died and I cleared her house, I found hundreds of letters and cards she had kept, and they told the story of her relationships.

There were letters from her mother—my great grandmother­—who died long before I was born, but sitting reading them one rainy afternoon, her words stretched out across the vista of time and I felt I knew her. I have kept and cherished them.

There’s also a real power in writing handwritten letters. It’s better than mindfulness. It forces you to concentrate and think of interesting and positive things that have happened in your life.

"As mistakes are harder to correct than on text or email, you have to be more deliberate and thoughtful"

Psychological studies have shown that putting pen to paper and writing a letter—as outdated as this sounds—has superior benefits to a text or email. It takes longer and requires more thought, which demands the person to give sustained focus on the positive while they write.

Psychologists have also argued that as mistakes are harder to correct than on text or email, you have to be more deliberate and thoughtful.

Most of all, receiving a letter is such a lovely surprise. It can enrich a relationship and allow it to grow and flourish. Be bold and write to someone you maybe don’t know that well. Who knows where it will lead?

The richness of handwritten correspondence

When I was about 12 years old, my friends and I decided that we wanted a pet mouse. The pet shop wouldn’t sell us one until we had a letter from a parent, so, having the neatest handwriting, I forged one. My deception quickly unravelled and all hell broke loose.

My mum felt that the punishment should fit the crime, so she made me write letters to a few randomly selected relatives. One of them was my uncle who I’d only met a few times when I was a toddler. I wrote a long letter detailing my life and listing my interests.

My punishment complete, I forgot about this until I suddenly got a reply from him. “How lovely to hear from you,” he said, and went on to tell me all about his life. He’d love to hear about what subjects at school I enjoyed. And so started a correspondence that went on for several years.

"I went upstairs and produced a box of letters, the last one being from just a few days before he had passed"

He turned out to be the most fascinating man. Then out of the blue, he died. My mum took the phone call and was distraught as they had not really spoken for years.

I went upstairs and produced a box of letters, the last one being from just a few days before he had passed. She consoled herself reading them and knowing that although she hadn’t been in touch, I had grown close to him by writing to him. In fact, I then became close to his wife, who I also wrote to for many years.

I often think about how that one naughty childhood transgression led to such an enriching correspondence that stretched on for many years. It encouraged me to write to lots of other people in fact, and it’s something I keep up with to this day.

So, I’d encourage you to put pen to paper and see where it leads. What have you got to lose?

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