As we celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend, I feel it is only fitting to discuss how we can use gratitude in our everyday lives to strengthen our relationships with others. Gratitude is an oft overlooked emotional expression, especially in a consumer culture where we have a special Friday dedicated to trampling old ladies and small children to get a 20% discount on a microwave. Despite this cultural ignorance, it is important to practice gratitude in our everyday lives. Studies have shown that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and this practice can increase our well-being and happiness.
So What is Gratitude?
You remember how when you were a kid you were always taught to say “thank you” when someone did something nice for you, and you begrudgingly went along with it so everybody would get off your back? Well, it isn’t that. Gratitude is an emotion, characterized by an appreciation for what one has and a lack of jealousy and material desire. It is made up of two distinct parts – the feeling and the expression – and both are important to a full understanding of the emotion.
The Feeling of Gratitude
At a minimum, the feeling of gratitude comes from a sincere appreciation of something in one’s life. Gratitude starts with mindfulness, defined by PsychologyToday as active, open attention to the present. Indeed, one cannot feel gratitude if one is not aware of what one should be grateful for. I have yet to speak at length about mindfulness, but a great narrative example of it in practice can be found here. Once one has this kind of appreciative attitude towards the present moment, gratitude becomes very easy. At this point, all it takes is a recognition of how fortunate one is for the present experience. Gratitude for certain experiences, objects, and people can then be merged into a holistic experience of gratitude for the entire present moment, including one’s self and one’s life.
The Expression of Gratitude
Once one has felt gratitude, whether it stems from appreciation of a gift someone has given, a favor someone has done, or a recognition of one’s fortune to be alive, one can then express this gratitude. It is important that the feeling of gratitude precede the expression; people are very good at discerning the difference between sincere and insincere appreciation. Just as we understand the difference between a sincere compliment and empty flattery, we know when someone is not truly appreciative of something we have given them.
Once we have felt true, sincere, appreciation, we can then express it to others through thanks. The typical, off-handed “thank you” doesn’t cut it here. One should look inside one’s self for a reason why one is thankful. Include this in the response, alongside a recognition of the other person’s kindness.
How to Show Gratitude
As mentioned in the last section, the expression of gratitude includes 3 steps: A standard expression of thanks, a reason for giving that thanks, and a recognition of the other person’s kindness. Here are a few examples. Consider your Aunt Margie has presented you with a nice winter jacket for your birthday:
Thank you, Aunt Margie!
The typical response. While you have indeed said thank you, you haven’t allowed yourself to feel gratitude and the words are empty. It doesn’t amount to much more than a recognition that you have received something, with a nice bit of etiquette on top so as to appear less narcissistic.
Thank you soooo very much for this wonderful gift Aunt Margie! I am soooo thankful you got it for me!
While this at least departs from the typical response, it clearly amounts to nothing more than flattery. The words are again empty, despite the excessive use of adjectives. Certainly an insincere display of thanks.
Thank you very much for the gift, Aunt Margie. It’s very stylish! I heard it was going to be a very cold winter and it will be very useful when I take my walks about town.
This is a better response, because it gives a reason for being thankful. It indicates a recognition of the other’s gift – you show an awareness of the thought and care the other person took when choosing it. By giving a reason, you show that you have thought about the gift you have been given, and appreciate its usefulness. You are showing gratitude for something you have.
Thank you very much for the gift, Aunt Margie. The coat is very stylish! It was very thoughtful of you to remember I’ve been cold on my walks around town. It means a lot to me that you’d consider my feelings. Thanks to you I’ll be able to feel comfortable and warm. I can’t wait to try it on!
Admittedly a tad formulaic, but it serves its purpose. In this response, not only have you given a reason for your gratitude, but you have made the other person the center of that gratitude. Rather than focusing on the gift you have been given, your focus is on the act of kindness the other person has done. You are appreciating them and their act as well as the gift they have given you, not just the gift itself. Just as in the last response there is a recognition of the other person’s empathy, but in this case it becomes the center of attention, as opposed to a mere implication stemming from your gratefulness for the gift. In practice, this response will come much more naturally and fluidly than it has in this example – when one has properly conditioned a feeling of gratitude, the expression becomes much easier.
How to Accept Gratitude
As a bonus, you might be wondering how to respond to someone who has given you a heartfelt expression of gratitude. While it may be tempting to give a similarly lengthy response, a recognition of someone else’s gratitude should typically be a small display of humility. The intent should be to accept their gratitude and remove any guilt they have for accepting the gift. As such, simple, humble responses are often the best. Let’s look at some examples so we can understand this a little better, as it may be counterintuitive after reading the last section.
You are very welcome.
This is actually a pretty great response. One remains humble by keeping the other person the center of attention, and makes no suggestion that the display of gratitude by the other person was insufficient. Adding a smile and a bit of prolonged eye contact will allow the recipient of your gift to remain at ease, and understand that your words imply no expectation of reciprocity.
You’re welcome! I just know you’ve been needing a coat and I thought it would be a really great gift. I saw it at the store and I thought of you!
While this kind of display may seem innocent enough, it lacks the humility present in the first response. In this response, one is bringing attention to one’s own kindness, rather than recognizing the grateful display that has been presented by the other person. It also may seem a bit defensive or unconfident, encouraging the other person to restate their gratitude (and in so doing, invalidate their first honest expression of it).
You’re welcome. I know you’d do the same for me.
The problem here is the expectation of reciprocity. You are invalidating the other person’s expression of gratitude by implying they have not done enough – they now are now indebted to you. In common terms, “they owe you one.” As Adam Grant comments in this great article on LinkedIn Pulse:
Eventually, I realized the problem was the subtle appeal to reciprocity. There’s nothing wrong with trading favors… but when I chose to help people, I wanted to do it without strings attached. I didn’t want to leave them feeling like they owed me.
When it comes to recognizing someone else’s gratitude, simplicity really is the best way to go. They are giving you a very vulnerable and beautiful display, and all you must do is accept it.
How To Encourage Gratitude In Others
Lastly, I would like to explore how you can encourage others to be grateful in a subtle and friendly way. We are often not very good at encouraging gratitude in others, especially when we feel unappreciated. Typically, we attempt to encourage these feelings with personal attacks or judgement – “You never appreciate what I do for you!” or “Be thankful for what you have, you’re so ungrateful!” While these statements may indeed be true, there are many less confrontational ways to encourage gratitude in others. The best way to do this is to offer someone to share in a moment of gratitude with you – stop and smell the roses and discretely suggest others do the same. Here are some examples:
Wow, it sure is a beautiful day. Don’t you think?
I’m so glad to be sharing this moment with you, I really appreciate our friendship.
When we use statements like these, we remind others that, like us, they often forget to appreciate the simple things in life. By expressing our gratitude for these things, we allow others to share in our gratitude. Not only does this allow them to share in the many benefits of gratitude, but it also strengthens your relationship with them.
However you celebrate this holiday weekend, remember to practice gratitude, and encourage others to do the same. You’ll be glad you did.