The way we communicate has changed almost beyond recognition over the last year. Where once we could gather, share space, hug and kiss, now we’re having to keep our distance.

Having such limited close personal contact for a large part of this year, has been tough for many of us. But the situation has also brought out the best in people. Support within communities for vulnerable and lonely people. Volunteers helping those stuck inside alone. Charities offering support and outreach services to those in need. Neighbours helping neighbours.

There has also been evidence of some alternative coping mechanisms, to help keep our brains busy and active. And good old-fashioned letter writing is high on the list.

Not all brown envelopes?

There’s something very special about seeing a handwritten envelope drop through your letterbox. Aside from birthday and Christmas cards, it’s certainly unusual to find something so personal among the uninspiring printed bills and bank statements. So receiving a ‘nice’ letter or parcel in the post can immediately lift your spirits.

It's something that can benefit both parties, too. While receiving a handwritten letter is a real joy, taking time to write one can have equally positive side effects.

Writing letters generates self-reflection and improves mental health

For many, social networks and email have replaced letter writing. However, mental health charity MIND says that although joining social networking sites can foster communication and offer support, they can also be detrimental to our mental health. Reactions are instant, and may not be what you’re looking for, or not giving you enough. Strong differences of opinion can quickly arise, and you can experience dissatisfaction if comparing your lot to other people’s seemingly better lives.

If you feel like turning your hand to writing, make sure there are no distractions. Sit quietly, away from screens, with some good-quality stationery and a favourite pen. Putting thoughts together can be meditative, and encourage you to think in a ‘bigger picture’ way about your life and what’s going on for you.

In a recent Huffington Post article, psychologist Deborah Smith, author of Grow Your Own Happiness, talks about the positive effects of writing a letter. “Handwriting is a wonderful way to tap into your own inner mind. It can be very therapeutic – and an incredibly powerful exercise for the writer and receiver.”

Unlike a brief text or a quick email, “it’s something that the receiver is more likely to keep, remember and treasure,” says Smith. “And doing something nice for someone else makes you happy, especially if you know they’ll really like it.”

Is letter writing a lost art?

With the sharp rise in instant communications in recent years, the art of letter writing has decreased. Here are some easy fixes if you’re struggling to think what to write…

Think about it like a journal

If you write to someone regularly, keep notes about your thoughts and activities as the days pass, so that you can diarise them. This simple format not only serves to share experiences with your reader, but also keeps a record of your life. This can often be something to revisit in years to come, as a reminder of how things were..

Write a gratitude list

Writing an A-Z of things you’re grateful for, is a very positive way to stay focused on the good things in life. It can also be an uplifting way to share happiness and positivity with other people. Telling someone you care about, that you appreciate them being in your life, is wonderfully uplifting for them to hear.

Imagine it’s a conversation

We’ve all been there. You sit down with your lovely notepaper and pen and scratch your head. What to write? Imagine your recipient is sitting next to you. What would you say if they were right there? Start with that, and perhaps you’ll find it opens up a bit. You could remind them of shared times, or write down some questions you’ve been meaning to ask them. Just write as if you were speaking out loud.

Why not get really creative?

If you already enjoy writing, why not take it up a notch? Maybe you and a correspondent could give each other prompts to write a short story or essay, to entertain each other. How about setting a sketching challenge, or creating a quiz for friends? These can be great fun to put together, and also to receive.

Use it as a news channel

Instead of speaking on the phone, share news and commentary via post. It doesn’t even have to be in the form of a letter. Send funny bits and pieces that you know the recipient will appreciate. Sharing family snaps, even old ones from days gone by, will raise a huge smile.

Fancy writing to someone completely different?

Writing Back is a cross-generational, pen-pal programme that pairs university students as pen pals with older, local community members. It’s a great opportunity to communicate with a different generation, keep your mind youthful, and learn all the new jargon! There may well be someone in the local community who’s on their own with limited social contact, who’d love to hear from you.

So don’t feel overwhelmed by the blank sheet of paper in front of you – it doesn’t have to be a huge thing. Sometimes, simply sending a pretty or funny card with a few lines inside saying hello, is enough to spread a little joy.

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