If you scan wellness or entrepreneurial content these days, you will see something on gratitude.
For example, having a daily gratitude practice is now relatively mainstream. Gratitude is becoming an economic niche, with new apps, journals, apparel, and books popping up and promising happier lives.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for gratitude, but the way gratitude seems to be generally understood…well it’s time to rethink this!
Fundamentally what the world seeks to call gratitude, I call appreciation.
If you are worried that I’m splitting hairs here with the definition, let me explain.
Writing what you view as a blessing down in a journal is not gratitude. It is appreciation. Taking action to help what you view as a blessing flourish is gratitude.
There is a big difference.
Appreciation is generally passive.
Gratitude is dynamic.
Let’s say your neighbor surprises you one morning by snow blowing your driveway. Imagine saying nothing to the neighbor but happily writing in a journal that evening about how wonderful it was to wake up to a clear driveway. Congrats, you’ve just practiced appreciation.
Gratitude runs deeper, and the only actual limits in expressing gratitude come down to our imagination.
A superficial way of expressing gratitude to your snow-blowing neighbor would be to thank them in person or via some message.
A more profound form of expressing gratitude might include buying them a gas card to fuel their desire to serve through snow blowing.
An even deeper form of expressing gratitude to your neighbor STARTS by connecting with them to understand who or what inspired them to be so kind in clearing your driveway. A deeper expression of gratitude would then be to do something that connects them even better to who or what inspired them.
Here’s an example: You wake up to your neighbor’s random act of kindness. You either call them or see them. After thanking them and telling them how much their kindness has meant to you, you ask, “Who or what inspired you to be so kind?” They tell you that their favorite grandparent was constantly shoveling neighbors’ driveways growing up. Today they love carrying on their grandparent’s example because 1) it feels good to serve, and 2) it helps them stay connected to the memory of their grandparent. So now, we can see that your clean driveway expresses the relationship your neighbor shared with their grandparent.
This is where it gets fun. As I see it in, gratitude is doing something to grow your neighbor’s connection with their beloved grandparent.
At this point, in my efforts to demonstrate gratitude with my neighbor, I’d be dialing up my curiosity about this grandparent. I’d want to hear more about your neighbor’s other favorite memories with them. And let’s say your neighbor tells you about how they used to love sharing chocolate chip cookies and milk with their grandparent. At this point, you have everything you need to express gratitude. And again, gratitude is a function of our imagination.
If it were me at this moment, I’d probably surprise my neighbor with chocolate chip cookies and a note. I’d perhaps say “I’m so grateful to have you as my neighbor. Your kindness of snow blowing the other day just blew me away. Please enjoy these chocolate chip cookies and savor those memories of your grandparent!”
Imagine the impact of this gesture vs. quietly appreciating your clean driveway through journaling.
Gratitude is dynamic. Appreciation is (generally) passive. Both are good, but they are NOT the same.
Let’s Keep Going
There’s another reason I want to rethink the mainstream understanding of gratitude. Which again, I think technically is better understood as appreciation.
I believe we are all in life for a reason and at the source of who we are is our reason. Unfortunately, through my own experience of life and in my work, I see mountains of evidence suggesting that most of us are unconscious or unaware of our reason in the moment. This means that we are drifting away from our reason a lot of the time. This observation isn’t meant to shame, but it’s also nothing to celebrate.
So how does this connect with the mainstream approach to gratitude?
Seeking to list out a couple of highlights from the day in our journal can help cultivate a certain mindset. Of course, we can learn to see a positive value in our experiences, but a superficial understanding of gratitude can also have unintended consequences. It can make us more comfortable with our drift in life.
Imagine needing to be at a particular destination but heading in the opposite direction. How does appreciating the sunshine, a tasty meal, or a pleasant moment in our journal do anything to resolve that we are fundamentally not headed towards what we want?
If we drift far enough from our reason, all sorts of activities start to look compelling to distract ourselves from that reality. Ever suddenly choose to start cleaning instead of tackling the project you are behind on? The cleaning temporarily gives a sense of progress and accomplishment, but it doesn’t resolve the deeper task we avoid. We clean in these moments as a way of better tolerating our drift. I think mainstream gratitude runs the genuine risk of doing this as well.
One More Example
Imagine having just finished a delicious meal with loved ones at a restaurant. You get up from the table, look the waitstaff right in the eye and start gushing about how incredible the meal was and how grateful you are that the restaurant exists. And then you walk out the door without paying. Would the restaurant share your view that you are so thankful for their existence?
Appreciating our blessings is one thing. Taking action to ensure that our blessings continue to flourish is another thing.
We can appreciate the restaurant and the meal through our praise or kind words. Yet without showing gratitude (in this case through paying the bill), the restaurant wouldn’t be able to sustain itself.
An Invitation to Go Deeper
As I’ve described here, I recognize that gratitude requires more significant effort and discernment than appreciation, but the return on that effort is often priceless.
In closing, you are invited to take whatever practice you have for considering the blessings in your life…and go deeper!
Think of someone you are grateful for. Think about what they consistently do that makes a difference for you. Next, connect with them and seek to understand the source of the behavior you find so meaningful. Lastly, use your imagination (and heart) to take action to increase the connection they have with the source of their behavior. You’ll be amazed at what unfolds when you do.
We are all in life for a reason. We can only realize that reason through serving others. Gratitude (vs. appreciation) is about helping others. When practiced well, gratitude is a powerful way to get closer to our reason.