Letters from the heart

When Hannah Brencher started leaving inspirational notes around New York, she had no idea of the positive effect she was having on strangers’ lives. Here, she talks to Lucy Purdy about the power of kind words and the fight against loneliness

Two and a half years ago, 24-year-old Hannah Brencher began leaving letters around New York City for strangers to find. She felt lonely in the big ‘city of dreams’ and used the process to help ease her feelings of sadness and prevent others from feeling the same way.

She left notes all over the city, tucking messages such as “Don’t give up on your dreams” and “I believe in you” into a book in a downtown cafe or in between the slats on a park bench, or on the worn seat of a cross-town subway cab.

What started as a comforting habit turned into a full-scale operation and soon enough, The World Needs More Love Letters project was born. Now a veritable army of volunteer letter writers has formed and Brencher’s spark of an idea is spreading around the world.

Hannah, who is originally from New Haven in Connecticut, tells Positive News: “My hope was that people would feel like they would be given a proactive recipe: that they could become folded into something larger than themselves – something that blesses the days of others. My letters were filled with honesty and encouragement and words of love. I wanted the recipients to know love wherever they were standing.”

There are now approximately 13,000 people involved, from 50 states and more than 50 countries: young and old, men and women, from all walks of life.

“We are all craving more presence and intention, and true connection” – Hannah Brencher

The website has a ‘found letters’ section where recipients can post their notes, and it makes for intriguing reading. One message, posted under a photo of a handwritten note on white paper and decorated with fish stickers, reads: “I found my letter at 7pm last night at the Starbucks on King Street in Alexandria, Virginia. I’m in the process of getting a divorce after a 20-year marriage. I find myself looking for and finding meaning in everyday events and noticing things that I’ve not paid much attention to before. I’m hyper-attuned to the world around me – looking for signs of goodness, wisdom and insight. I found my letter at the perfect time.”

Social policy research charity The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that social isolation is one of the biggest problems in our lives and the Mental Health Foundation has suggested that loneliness is more prevalent among the young than the old.

But new research by the University of British Columbia published in the journal Emotion showed that performing acts of kindness can actually help people suffering from social anxiety to feel more positive. When volunteers with high levels of social anxiety were asked to carry out several acts of kindness two days a week over a four-week period, they reported feeling it was easier to be around other people and feeling more positive. Though the acts they committed were small: visiting a sick friend or giving someone a small gift, they had a considerable impact on their outlook.

“Social isolation is at the root of what More Love Letters is trying to heal,” explains Hannah. “We are being counter-culture to a world that is screaming and barking about our connectivity. In truth, we are all craving more presence and intention, and true connection. Above other things, The World Needs More Love Letters is an advocate for that need to slow down and focus on one another.”

Since embarking on the project, Hannah has been interviewed by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and the Washington Post, and named a finalist in the TED 2013 Global Talent Search. How has the project changed her outlook?

“It has certainly changed what I think is possible and how very much my little hands can do within this world. I would have been the first to tell you that letters could not make a difference and I have been proven wrong over and over again. There is a very real need for this project. It fills me with great joy and purpose and it allows me to connect with people all over the world and inspire them.

“I could not ask for much more.”