Joel Zuckerman, 63: Gratitude

The power of letting people know we see them. Having written and sent over 250 letters of gratitude, Joel Zuckerman knows well the upside of expressing appreciation, for both the sender and the receiver. He discusses his various gratitude practices and his recent crippling injury that put his gratitude to the test.

Being grateful while keeping it to ourselves is probably better than running amok with resentments, but sharing one’s gratitude with people who have been there for us is eons better — not just for us, but also a treasure for those on the receiving end. None of us got to where we are by going solo, and those egotistical enough to claim they did are not being truthful; take it from Joel Zuckerman. As a species, our super power is cooperation, and if we honestly reflect on our circumstances, there will be a lineage of people who have been there for us. 

Acknowledging these people turns out to be quite powerful for the sender and receiver. This is no zero-sum game where giving credit diminishes us; no, not at all. It builds the strength and confidence of all involved, and will actually ripple out to those around both sides of the acknowledgment. 

Joel knows about the power of connecting via gratitude. He has written and sent over 250 letters of gratitude over more than 10 years, and has written a book, to be released this fall, on how to begin and what to expect. When we met, Joel was awaiting surgery for his badly torn quadriceps muscle, but he was still smiling and grateful. 

Joel zuckerman
Photograph by David Harry Stewart.

How old are you?

“I couldn’t bear weight, so I was taken down on horseback.”

You were recently in Peru and your trip took a dramatic turn. What happened?
I was hiking the iconic Salkantay Trail in the Andes with my wife and two other couples. It was six days, lodge-to-lodge, culminating at Machu Picchu. It’s high-altitude, 15,000 feet, and quite remote. 

On the second day, as we were descending to the lodge, I slipped on loose gravel or mud with my right leg, then braced my left leg hard to arrest the fall and severed the quadriceps tendon. I couldn’t bear weight, so I was taken down on horseback. Moreover, I had ninety minutes to make an abrupt decision regarding my immediate future, owing to imminent road closures and the fact I could barely hobble, never mind attempt to ascend 2,000 feet on a gnarly, rock-strewn trail the next day. I urged my wife to continue this bucket-list adventure without me but in the company of the guides and our friends.

I packed my gear and was carried two miles by a sextet of local Quechua natives, who used a mountain stretcher to get me to an ancient ATV. From there, it was three hours, mostly on a rutted dirt road by nightfall, back to the city of Cuzco. An anxious overnight, then 23 hours traveling time on three flights back to Utah. 

Having never been in battle, unhoused, or severely injured, the 48 hours from accident, evacuation, separation, and circuitous, uncertain return while immobilized was the most disheartening event of my life. 

Joel zuckerman
Joel being evacuated after his injury in Peru.

“My gratitude practice was stretched to the limit!”

You have been very interested in the concept of gratitude for years. Were you able to pull gratitude to the forefront of your mind as all this was going on in Peru?
My gratitude practice was stretched to the limit! I knew it was serious, because if I put an ounce of weight on my left leg, it would buckle. I was whisked away in a heartbeat, in shock, leaving my crew behind to continue the grand adventure without me, incredibly anxious in a foreign country where few spoke English, and 4,500 miles from home! The gratitude I summoned in waves, sporadically but consciously, helped to ameliorate a rotten situation. I made it to the hotel by late evening, kept reasonably calm until departing the following afternoon, was treated well on the three flights, and was picked up by my daughter at the airport. 

However, I then spent a week alone, pre-surgery, crutching around, mostly isolated, while their Peru adventure continued. It was a toxic cocktail of FOMO, self-pity, jealousy, and despair for Joel. I willed deep reservoirs of gratitude I wasn’t positive I possessed to keep my equanimity. I was home, the injury wasn’t life-threatening, I have family nearby, and was able to access orthopedic care quickly. 

Joel zuckerman

“Over the last decade, I’ve written and sent some 250 Letters of Gratitude to individuals near and far”

You are an advocate of writing letters of gratitude. How is that different from feeling a general sense of being grateful?
My deeply organic, self-taught understanding of gratitude comes from a single source: Over the last decade, I’ve written and sent some 250 Letters of Gratitude to individuals near and far — friends both old and new, family, colleagues, associates, those who’ve done me a kindness, etc., those that I’ve known for sixty years, and those I’ve known for less than six weeks.

This deep, fully encompassing immersion into proactive (as opposed to the more common reactive) gratitude has changed and improved me in numerous ways. Everyone is reactively grateful. You have serious health concerns and get a benign diagnosis? So Grateful! Your kid gets into their first choice of college? So Grateful! Your white-knuckle, turbulent flight lands safely? So Grateful! 

But Proactive gratitude is different; a learned behavior. You train your mind to make the conscious decision to be grateful ten, twenty, fifty times daily, even for a few seconds, and in so doing find a moment of calm in virtually any circumstance. My personal jam is writing heartfelt, deeply personal letters to those who have assisted me on life’s journey. This is how I manifest gratitude. I urge audiences I speak to, and those reading this profile, to consider doing the same. It’s a life-changing practice. To quote the author Gertrude Stein:

“Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anybody.”

Joel zuckerman

What about for someone who perhaps had not behaved the way they should — is there gratitude there?
Not every letter reads like a Hallmark Card; far from it! There have been a handful of somewhat transactional letters to business associates. There might have been a tinge of admonishment in a letter or two. I wrote one letter in particular that was a mea culpa, and I’ve written a dozen-or-more letters of gratitude/condolence. Depending on my relationship, there’s invariably some humor, often snark, in a Letter of Gratitude. But there isn’t a single letter in this voluminous archive where I wrote to someone that I felt behaved badly.

Are there people you would want to write letters of gratitude to but have yet to do?
Great question! I always have a to-do list of recipients, perpetually “on deck.” An example: A ski buddy called Goblin underwent emergency quadruple bypass surgery this past January. When I heard the news, I rushed to the computer to tell him how grateful I was for how he had helped me in ways large and small. He had been “on deck” for several years, but I never wrote to him until he was on the brink. If he had departed, I would’ve been devastated that I had never reached out to him. 

“I encourage them to reflect on tender moments, raucous times, and all the factors comprising the full-volume life they led”

Truth is, I’ve lost about a dozen letter recipients over the years. The first thought when I hear the sad news is how grateful I was to have reached out to them before they were gone. I quote Emerson when I speak to audiences, with this salient point:. “You can never do a kindness too soon, because you never know how soon it will be too late.”

It is somewhat easier to be in a grateful mood when sipping coffee on a beautiful veranda, but less so when one is having difficulty. What advice would you, Joel Zuckerman, give to someone who is in a difficult position?
The pat answer would be: “There’s always something to be grateful for.” But I’ll add this. Like I mentioned, I’ve written many letters of gratitude/condolence. I sent them to those who recently lost a loved one, but also to those facing their own imminent demise, staring down the gun barrel. I always urge them to feel grateful for what they’ve accomplished in the rich tapestry of their lives. Be thankful they created families, or businesses, or contributed to society’s betterment. I encourage them to reflect on tender moments, raucous times, and all the factors comprising the full-volume life they led.

If someone has never written a letter of gratitude, how would you suggest they begin?
My tenth book will be out late this year: Gratitude Tiger: Enhancing Equanimity, Wellbeing & Personal Relationships by Becoming Fiercely Grateful. 

Joel zuckerman

“I love you and cherish your presence.”

This will be a “how to” (and more importantly, “why”) book. It’s an informative, irreverent, anecdotal, and entertaining discussion of the entire concept of writing Letters of Gratitude. One chapter is titled “Ten Concepts to Jumpstart Letters of Gratitude.” I’ll share two examples: 

1—Reference the surprise of the recipient in the opening sentences. “I know this letter will come as a shock, but I wanted to share with you my deep gratitude for all your assistance and support through these recent difficulties.”

2—If possible, tie the letter to a holiday, milestone, birthday, or anniversary. “Thanksgiving is later this month, which makes it a perfect time for me to offer my heartfelt thanks for your wise counsel and friendship” or, “Summer’s beginning, and I wanted to share my gratitude with you for all those fun summers we enjoyed as teenagers!”

Another important point: Another chapter is titled: “Seven Paragraphs, Seven Sentences, Seven Words.” My letters tend to be a full typed page — seven paragraphs, sometimes longer. BUT — you can convey deep gratitude in just seven sentences. Even seven words! Here are a few examples:

“This department would not run without you.”

“You are THE cog in this machine.”

“I love you and cherish your presence.”

“I am so grateful for your assistance.”

“Because I’m proactive, expressive, and focused on showing gratitude, I consider it fierce.”

Joel zuckerman

Why Tiger? What do you mean by that?
T.I.G.E.R. is an acronym. It means “Tapping into gratitude engenders rewards.” It’s a fancy way of saying: It’s better to give than to receive. When you tap into gratitude, when you think about it, ruminate on it, keep it top of mind, you WILL be rewarded! It’s a cornerstone of the Joel Zuckerman keynote presentation, setting the stage for deeper discussions about gratitude, and the joy of letter writing. Parenthetically, it makes for a memorable, catchy website: GratitudeTiger.com.  

You write that you have been fiercely grateful since 2013. What happened that year and what do you mean by fiercely?
That’s the year I wrote my first Letter of Gratitude. I read about the concept in a book and decided to write one to a colleague as an intellectual exercise. It never occurred to me I’d write a second letter. But I was taken aback by the feeling of warmth and accomplishment when I mailed it, so I soon wrote a second. Then a third. Then a few years later, it was fifty, then a hundred, etc. Fiercely ties into Gratitudetiger.com. Because I’m proactive, expressive, and focused on showing gratitude, I consider it fierce.

“One page of stationery at a time, week after month after year”

How are acts of service related to being fiercely grateful, or are they different?
A sad admission. I’ve never served in a soup kitchen. Never ran a PTA Bake Sale. Never headed a committee or coached a soccer team. Aside from some minor fundraising and being charitably inclined on a personal level, there’s only one thing I can point to: Letter after letter — individual human connections. One page of stationery at a time, week after month after year. Fostering or deepening personal relationships. That’s how I show fierce gratitude.

How did your experience of writing successful books and articles on golf inform Gratitude Tiger?
I had a nice sports writing career. Traveled extensively, had a prolific decade-and-a-half when I was planning, writing, and promoting book after book after book in rapid succession. Did TV and radio, won some awards, saw much of the world, always while dragging golf clubs behind me. 

The books total 2,000 pages. Add a thousand feature stories, columns or interviews averaging three pages, which increases the archive by an additional 3,000 pages. So, a rough total of 5,000 pages for which I was paid. But the 250 Letters of Gratitude written and sent, which comprise just 5% of my “professional output” are FAR more meaningful to me than any book, magazine cover, or feature I wrote.

“In winter, I ski, sometimes 100+ days, but usually 80+”

Except for your current issue with your torn leg tendon, you seem very fit. What sort of activities are you involved in?
In warmer weather, I play golf on foot four or five times weekly, about five to six miles per round. I mountain bike regularly, and hike occasionally. In winter, I ski, sometimes 100+ days, but usually 80+. (I was also an avid snowboarder, but that’s now behind me.) If conditions permit, I’ll occasionally ride a snow bike. To keep in shape for these preferred activities, I lift weights, do Pilates, yoga, and stretch regularly.

What is your diet like?
Bifurcated? Eccentric? On Death Row, my final meal request would be baby back ribs, fried clams and Rice Krispies treats. (I’m a sixty-something pre-teen!) However, the reality is a green smoothie many/most mornings, grilled vegetables or salad with dinner, limit sweets and red meat. I’ve been known to have my fair share of wine and/or beer when socializing, but other than that I only drink water or hot tea.

“I do a silent gratitude practice as I’m turning in called ‘Count Your Blessings’ ”

What are 3 non-negotiables in your life today?
1—I do a silent gratitude practice as I’m turning in called “Count Your Blessings.” I rehash every positive experience chronologically, no matter how trifling or mundane, that happened that day, morning till night. A quality breakfast, who I heard from, or called, someone who might’ve texted me. A random exchange, a brisk walk, intriguing podcast, something creative I wrote down, if I had lunch with a friend or business associate, any event I attended, if my favorite team won the game, if I spoke to one of the grandkids, etc. The list can swell to twenty items on a good day. This has a calming effect on the nervous system, can help you flick the “off switch” and slip into a restful state more efficiently.

2—Abide by Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest tends to stay at rest, an object in motion…you get the drift.

3—I play an online brain game called MindPal. It’s a rotating combination of five mental exercises including math, memory, spatial understanding, recall, attention, grammar, dexterity, vocabulary, logic, comprehension, etc. It takes about ten minutes. It helps with mental acuity and, as a professional speaker, presenting for up to forty-five minutes with no notes or slides, it’s invaluable!

Connect with Joel:
Gratitude Tiger
Email: joelzuckerman317@gmail.com

Main image by David Harry Stewart.

See medical disclaimer below. ↓


  1. I am so in agreement with this pro active intention . I run a grief support group since I lost my husband 5 years ago , survived a stroke and cancer as well and key to surviving and thriving is my faith but also having an attitude of gratitude! So many blessings in life ! Just look for them . Thanks for sharing Joel !
    Sheila Brennan Martin

  2. Wow Joel, I’m so sorry to hear of your fall . I love the Gratitude aspect of your life . Being 22 years sober I channel into Gratitude often , especially when I have the “ poor me”’s . (Poor me , pour me a drink 🙂 . Ironically I recently fell when my dog chased a rabbit . I leaped down the stairs fell and cracked my head hard . Grateful I didn’t harm myself more. 2 weeks later revealed a fractured pelvis since i was still in pain . (Thinking Groin Pull) . Praying for a full recovery for you so I can continue to see all the wonderful aspects of your life . Esp the grands ! Best always Karen

  3. Wish you a speedy recovery pal!
    Gratefully your friend -BZ
    Ps.. Still missing one or two signed copies of your books…all have been a fantastic, worthwhile read ! Thank you Joel

  4. Joel

    Sorry to hear about your recent injury
    and so far away from home when it

    Glade to see you are getting better.



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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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