Here’s a modest proposal that’s going to come off a tad old-school: As we make our way through the hellscape that is 2020, go find yourself a pen pal.
We know it sounds more 1920 than 2020. But in these days of DM-ing, there’s something therapeutic about sitting down with just some paper and a pen (and any other cute stationery thingamajigs you can find in your junk drawer at home) and writing to a friend or a perfect stranger. (Plus, your stamp purchase is a good way to support the U.S. Postal Service while it struggles for emergency funding.)
Because of the pandemic, we’re all collectively grieving the usual ways we engage in human connection: dinner dates with friends, happy hours with co-workers, family birthday parties. Having a pen pal is an opportunity to get personal again, said Michelle Mouhtis, a therapist and relationship coach in Clifton, New Jersey.
“It really makes you feel connected to the person in a way that talking on the phone, texting, FaceTiming, or even seeing them in person can’t achieve,” she told HuffPost. “It’s a lot easier to be vulnerable when you’re writing a letter. It’s one of the most non-judgmental spaces to be in, because you don’t see the other person’s immediate reactions.”
And if you’re still quarantined and bored out of your gourd, getting creative with your letters ― etching a cute detailed border around the edge of the paper, adding a little watercolor, or trying out new gel pens ― is surprisingly entertaining. (If you’re feeling really ambitious, try your hand at calligraphy, a la Meghan Markle.)
“Each letter I receive feels like a gift from my friend vs. just a message. I think the problem with texting and DM-ing is that it can be too accessible and saturated to the point where it becomes difficult for it to feel truly special.”
Mouhtis gives pen-palling her stamp of approval (so cheesy, sorry) because the hobby introduced her to her best friend: In 2006, Mouhtis’ eighth grade teacher asked the class if they wanted to be matched up with international pen pals. A then-14-year-old Mouhtis was paired up with Rachel, a teen from England she continued to write to throughout her teen and college years. Now, the two are best friends. (They met in person for the first time in 2015 and have continued to meet up ever since.)
“I think having a pen pal is more than just having a friend,” Mouhtis said. “It’s seeing how people in other parts of the country live, what their opinions and views are on global issues, how they spend their time working as well as their leisure activities, and getting an inside view of what it’s like to live in another region of the USA or another country.”
You can find global pen pals with similar interests through sites like Geek Girl Pen Pals (a group which, in spite of the name, welcomes all gender identities) or Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals, an active Facebook group with almost 30,000 members.
If you want to forge a cross-generational bond, reach out to an assisted living center and ask if they’re in need of pen pals. Many retirement communities have started pen pal programs to keep residents connected to the community and combat loneliness during the pandemic.
Like journaling, letter-writing can help alleviate stress and help manage anxiety and depression, says Pegah Moghaddam, a psychotherapist in Atlanta. (That’s a welcome relief, given that the vast majority of Americans — 90% — report dealing with emotional distress related to COVID-19.)
“The process of writing our emotional experiences has many benefits; it can be cathartic, build awareness, and give us insight into how to take care of ourselves,” Moghaddam said.
As the therapist sees it, creating space in our lives for journaling or pen-palling is akin to making time for a yoga or meditation practice.
“The process becomes intentional and it invites us to tune in to our experience and express it to another while developing the ability to tolerate our own vulnerability,” she said. “When we write, we allow our ideas to flow easily and freely, opening up the possibility to be vulnerable with ourselves and others.”
But it takes so long to receive a letter. Why not just DM someone?
Why write a letter when you could just send a quick and easy text or DM? Because you’re probably tired of looking at a screen and your brain needs a break from doomscrolling. Plus, your patience between letters will be rewarded. Think of how happy you get when your Amazon package gets delivered, even if it’s just floss and laundry detergent. A letter is even better!
“Each letter I receive feels like a gift from my friend vs. just a message,” said Alexandra Ling, a digital creator who lives in California and has pen pals as far away as Berlin. “I think the problem with texting and DM-ing is that it can be too accessible and saturated to the point where it becomes difficult for it to feel truly special.”
Ling savors the entire letter writing process: She stocks up on stickers and different pens to illustrate her envelopes and paper stock. Sometimes, she’ll even include a mini music playlist tailored to the specific recipient.
“Letters can also be a platform to express our creativity,” she said. “I’ve personally made little drawings or cards for my pen pal and it reminds me of what it’s like to be a kid again.”
Yes, your first few letters to a new pen pal might sound a little awkward.
What do you say to your pen pal if you’ve never met in real life? Try to pair up with someone you have baseline similar interests with. Then, just ask them about the facts of their lives.
“Start with the basics: your name, interests, occupation, likes/dislikes, or anything else you want to or feel comfortable sharing,” Ling said.
You might also ask them about what it looks like in their little corner of the world. Have quarantine restrictions been lifted? Have there been any COVID super-spreader events? What’s the big news of the week or month? (Alternately, it may be interesting to find out how their media and politicians are talking about the U.S., given everything that’s been happening here.)
The first few letters may be a little silted and awkward, just as it would be if you were meeting someone IRL for the first time.
You’re not going to get into the thick of your emotional life in the beginning. And you and your pen pal might not even hit it off, which is entirely fine. But who knows? You might just end up finding a new best friend like Mouhtis did.
And, if nothing else, it will give you something to look forward to in the mail amid all the bills and coupon packets.
“There is something so exciting [about] opening up your mailbox and seeing an envelope with your name handwritten on it — and maybe even a foreign stamp,” Mouhtis said. “There’s something heartwarming about seeing your friend’s handwriting — it’s like peering into a part of their personality.”
And, she added, “there is something about making a hot cup of coffee, sitting down at a desk, putting on some music, and writing until your hand cramps up.”
Blissed Connections is an editorial series that explores practical ways to strengthen and deepen the relationships you have — or want to have — with the people in your life.