This time of year always makes us reflect on what we’re thankful for. Sadly, this brief exercise often becomes a hollow recitation—we say things like “I’m thankful for my family,” “I’m thankful for my job” without even thinking, let alone feeling, what that means. But, if you choose to do something different—if you choose to really think about what you’re saying and consciously acknowledge the source of what you’re thankful for—you can move beyond being thankful to being grateful.
In everyday use, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between thankfulness and gratitude. Both imply an appreciation of something that benefits us. But there’s a reason there are two words—they communicate different levels of appreciation.
Thankfulness acknowledges appreciation on a more cognitive level. For instance, if someone opens a door for us at the bank or coffee shop, we automatically say, “Thank you,” because we know that it was a polite gesture.
But gratitude goes much deeper. Instead of a just a polite gesture, we can choose to see the door opening as another human—the source of the benefit—genuinely caring about our needs or wanting to make our lives easier. When we realize that someone with no obligation to us did something for our benefit, we feel supported and connected. And that’s the difference between gratitude and thankfulness—feeling vs. recognizing.
Being conscious and present in the moment to feel appreciation is a conscious effort, and it may take some practice…but it’s totally worth the work. People who give and receive gratitude are happier and healthier. Studies are showing that gratitude helps reduce stress and helps people more effectively deal with stressors. Such a less-stressed life has physical benefits, including better sleep, and promotes emotional well-being.
When we are bathed in that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with recognizing connection and support available in each experience, we receive gratitude. Yet, gratitude is a two-way street. We can give it, too. Giving gratitude may look identical to giving thanks—it may simply entail a “Thank you” to the stranger holding your door.
But what makes an act of giving gratitude different from giving thanks is your attitude and intention, and that may be communicated in very subtle ways. If you give thanks to someone holding your door, your “Thank you” may be muttered without even turning your head. But when giving gratitude, you are fully conscious of the bigger picture—someone is clearing an obstacle in your path, making your life easier, and to express that, you need to look at the source of your gratitude in the eyes…and a smile never hurt 🙂