Gratitude Part 4: Gratitude versus thankfulness

Do you know the difference between gratitude and thankfulness? Read more to find out.

Have you ever heard others talk about gratitude, but you’re not really sure what it is? You’re not alone. In this series of Michigan State University Extension articles, we’re going to explore what gratitude is and ideas for including gratefulness in your life, how to write a gratitude letter, health benefits of gratitude and the differences between gratitude and thankfulness. In this article, we’re going to explore the differences between gratitude and thankfulness.

Before we begin, let’s take a quick moment to review what gratitude is. Gratitude is an emotion expressing an appreciation for what one has as opposed to what one wants, according to Psychology Today. Furthermore, Harvard Medical School offers that gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what one receives—tangible or intangible—as they acknowledge the goodness in their lives.

Although the words grateful and thankful are often used interchangeably, they are actually different. In an earlier article, you may have read about the difference when you’re writing to someone to let them know of your appreciation for them or something they have done: grateful (writing a gratitude letter) and being thankful (writing a thank-you note). Although similar, being grateful implies you have been affected by another person or thing, just as it is in your life.

Remember that being grateful is about appreciating what one has, as opposed to what one wants. Being thankful or thanking someone often implies you are acknowledging your thanks for something that someone has given you.

If it still seems confusing, consider these suggestions.

Thankful tends to be an automatic response like when someone holds open a door—most people automatically say thank you. Or if you drop something at the grocery store and someone picks it up for you, automatically you say thank you. Gratefulness tends to be an emotional response to reflection of an occurrence or series of occurrences that have made a difference in your life. An example might be a mentor at work who has provided support and guidance to you as you become familiar with your new position and the organization.

Actions surrounding thankfulness only last a moment. Consider when you’re at a restaurant and the wait staff brings your dinner to you. Typically you say thank you and then continue in your conversation with your dinner guests or just begin eating. Gratefulness happens at a much deeper level and has feelings attached to it. Gratefulness grows over time. You may be grateful for a friend who encouraged you to meet your goal of going back to school and then supported you as you took classes. You can also gain a sense of gratefulness for a neighbor who said they would help you on the weekend to cut down a tree in your yard and they followed through on their commitment to helping you.

Your words and actions show thankfulness. Giving a high five to a youth who just crossed home base at a baseball game or waving to a neighbor who stopped their car to let you cross the street. Even yelling thank you to the mail delivery person as they place envelopes in your mailbox. Your words and actions can also show gratefulness, but with gratefulness it isn’t an expected response to an action. For example, maybe you “pay it forward” at the fast food drive through because you felt grateful for the raise you just received. Or you make a meal for a neighbor who had some struggles in their life lately. Grateful words and actions happen because a feeling and a willingness to act occurred within you.

Remember that the key to gratefulness is simple—it’s practice. The more you integrate gratefulness into your life, the easier and more routine it will become. It won’t take long for you to notice a change in yourself and others.  

Other articles in series

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