As many all over the world remain in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, the way we communicate with each other is changing. Video platforms are seeing hundreds of millions of meeting participants daily, and it feels as if people are more glued to their phones than ever. But connection through technology doesn’t always feel genuine. Writing letters to friends and family or pen pals, however, can provide the more meaningful connection some people are seeking.
The start of quarantine found me stressed, burnt out and lonely at home, which is 1,000 miles away from my college dorm. It felt as though I was always on my phone but never actually talking to anyone; instead, I just mindlessly switched between all of my social media apps, scrolling until I couldn’t physically or mentally bear it. I would open the apps in search of connection, but often found it lacking the depth I had been looking for and, as a result, found myself lacking the energy or confidence to initiate interactions.
During isolation, many people — especially senior citizens — have turned to letter writing as a way to feel less alone, but it can be intimidating to write to a complete stranger. So, when one of my favorite digital creators announced a pen pal project in April, Written Connections, I jumped at the chance to be matched with someone based on our interests.
Designed to “bring people together during these uncertain times,” Written Connections was also an effort to support the United States Postal Service after it was announced the governmental agency was at risk to lose funding. Throughout the month of May, participants sent three letters to their match centered around the themes of community, creativity and adventure. I found the prompts helpful for getting on the same page as my pen pal, but not restricting, since we were matched due to our similarities. I found Written Connections to be the perfect amount of freedom and structure for me.
During the month of the project, I discovered how pen paling could help me in ways other than curing loneliness. The act of writing a physical letter and following the prompts allowed me to break free of my screens every week and left me feeling calm and renewed.
The experience of a project like Written Connections was different from other pen paling I’ve done, like just sending a random letter to friends and family or using an app like Slowly, which mimics the process of mailing letters in that the messages sent to other users don’t arrive instantly. But Slowly falls short for me. The act of writing and mailing a letter is about detaching from technology to slow down the rushed and sometimes unmeaningful way I normally communicate with others; this aspect of letter writing is something that the app lacks.
Being matched with and writing to a stranger through Written Connections offered me the chance to break out of my regular routine as well as my normal social circle. So, when the team behind the project announced another month of pen paling in July, this time themed around Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” novels, I jumped at the chance. Due to Written Connections’ popularity, signups are now limited and require a $1 Patreon membership or donation, which will be given to the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, California, and Mermaids in the United Kingdom.
While pen paling has positively impacted me personally, the process of letter writing in general has been proven to have many benefits, as well.
Detoxing from technology can be valuable in many ways, especially since we spend up to 12 hours on screens every day at home. For me, taking a break from my phone and laptop to read and then write a letter gives me the chance to slow down my thinking as I consider what I really want to say to the recipient.
The visual aspect of pen paling also provides me with the opportunity to express myself in a more creative way through my writing and the presentation of my note, making the time I set aside to write and decorate my letter positive and relaxing. I find the overall experience to be peaceful, stimulating and refreshing. But letter writing also has benefits that many might not recognize in the moment.
Since letter writing is more permanent than typing, and thus forces writers to slow down mentally and physically, the process can have positive impacts on thinking. A Northern Illinois University essay on the topic states that certain kinds of writing, especially those involving emotions, can “be beneficial to intellectual vitality, creativity, and thinking abilities.” The essay also cites a study that showed writing about emotions and thoughts surrounding upheaval in life led to an increase in positive feelings and a decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression. These results were applicable to participants of all ages, as well.
Another study at Kent State University showed that writing letters of gratitude — particularly those that were meaningful and not centered on gifts — made participants feel happier and more satisfied with their lives. Writing letters to pen pals or loved ones even semi-regularly offers not only these general benefits, but personal ones that I only discovered when I started pen paling.
The longer I remain in isolation, the more I want to keep writing letters. Pen paling with Written Connections led to sending cards to friends in other states and writing thank yous to family members. I’ve found that there’s something almost cathartic in expressing myself on paper to connect with someone so far away.
For me, mail is something that I’ve appreciated from a young age, and I hope that my letters do the same for those that receive them. Letter writing has also led me to journal more, which has its own benefits as well. Obviously, I enjoy writing, but during isolation I’ve discovered many different ways that it can help me — and not just in a professional sense.
When almost everything in life is fast-paced and on a screen, letter writing can offer the chance to slow down the body and mind to allow reflection and a new level of connection with others. While it might not be a primary concern when working on a letter, its physical presentation allows the writer to express themselves in another creative way.
For me, there’s something special about holding something in my hands that another person made with theirs before it traveled across the world — or maybe just a state line — to land in my mailbox. It makes me feel less alone and connected to a greater and bigger thing through paper, ink and a stamp.