Grateful vs Thankful: What is the Difference?

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Are you like me in the sense that you’ve wondered what the difference is between being grateful and thankful?

The two words are often used interchangeably when people express their gratitude. However, although they’re considered synonyms for showing your appreciation for something or someone, there is a difference between these two words.

Today, we’ll explore the differences between grateful vs. thankful. Then, we’ll try to come up with a description that is in keeping with our experience whenever we express appreciation for the goodness we receive from the world at large.

The Scholarly Definitions of Grateful and Thankful

Being grateful is defined in Merriam Webster as being “appreciative of benefits received.” Meanwhile, in the same source, being thankful is defined as being “conscious of benefits received” and also “well pleased.”

However, there are multiple layers and definitions for gratitude, making it a more complex concept than being thankful.

Feeling gratitude can be expressed in many ways and at multiple levels of complexity, spanning from a shorter change in effect (similar to being thankful) to long-term changes in personal temperament.

Being grateful isn’t just about performing one action, it’s also an emotion that serves a positive biological purpose. Gratitude embodies a general state of thankfulness.

Gratefulness can be the result of many small, positive actions that come together to shape a mindset of appreciation. Some examples may be:

  • After hearing about a sick friend, you may reflect on your life and feel grateful for your health.
  • If you have to reschedule a meeting at the last minute due to a family emergency, you will probably feel grateful for the other meeting attendees if they’re understanding of your last-minute crisis.
  • If you go to a third world country, surely you will feel gratitude for your access to clean water and fresh foods.
  • If you have a tough day at work, you might stop to be grateful that you have a job, unlike the many who are unemployed.

A great way to practice gratitude is to use an app that can reinforce this habit and capture the positive things you want to remember. The video below showcases 9 of the best gratitude apps today.

Thankfulness, on the other hand, is a conscious act you engage in after you receive some sort of benefit. Thankfulness differs from gratitude in many ways, one of which is that it is commonly associated with materialism, which is not a characteristic of people who practice gratitude.

Studies have shown that people who recognize themselves to have a low tendency toward materialistic habits also report that they’re more grateful than those who recognize their sense of materialism.

Thankfulness is the (often fleeting) response you have after someone does something specific for you or gives you a specific gift.

For example:

  • Someone holds a door open for you
  • Someone gives you a Christmas or birthday present
  • Someone tells you that they like the shirt you’re wearing

None of these things will truly benefit you in the long-term, which puts them in the thankful category.

Spiritual Definitions of Grateful vs Thankful

It may not come as a surprise that religious and spiritual movements, such as Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism have addressed the concept of gratitude.

Religions have taught that living with a sense of gratitude is a critical part of leading a good life; however, unlike people who view gratitude today, religions often refer to it solely as a need to feel thanks for a higher power.

For example, those who are Jewish are encouraged to begin each day by feeling gratitude that they woke up from their sleep.

On the other hand, in the Islam religion, practitioners are asked to offer five daily prayers–not in search of gaining something they don’t have (such as praying to lang a dream job or meet a potential spouse), but rather to show Allah that they’re grateful.

While each religion uses gratitude in a unique way, they all use it to offer thanks to a higher power who has made their existence possible.

By expressing gratitude, we’re affirming the good that we have come across in the world. Furthermore, we are recognizing that sources of goodness (i.e., the giver) are actually outside and separate from ourselves.

When we search for definitions of grateful and thankful from the spiritual side of things, we’ll discover that–spiritually speaking–you start living a life of gratitude the minute you become fully aware of goodness and are able to appreciate that goodness without thinking in terms of the recipient or the giver.

Meanwhile, thankfulness is the moment we think of who the giver is, what the gift is, and who receives the gift. We then recognize ourselves as the recipient and offer our thanks to the giver.

By these definitions, the expression of gratitude is the continuous flow of being thankful.

In recent years, researchers have provided clinical evidence of what many spiritual traditions have been arguing for hundreds of years–that living with a feeling of gratitude has a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing, which creates a connection between gratitude and spirituality.

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We’re affirming the good that we have come across in the world by expressing our gratitude.

In fact, Deepak Chopra, a world-renowned leader, and doctor in alternative medicine makes several deep connections to gratitude and spirituality in his work.

Chopra claims that being grateful is parallel to feeling a Divine presence, as it allows us to recognize the value and virtue of the things in our lives.

In this respect, gratitude may be seen as being a remedy to various forms of suffering. Therefore, some may consider it to be a form of spirituality on its own.

Action Step: For just a few minutes, consider the things in your life that you possibly could be grateful for. You can think about any positive relationships you have, the comfort of your own bed, your ability to move your body, or your mind, which is your tool for understanding yourself and the things around you.

Take a deep breath in and feel gratitude for the clean air that surrounds you. Feel the life in your body and acknowledge the miracle you’re experiencing by simply being alive.

Turn your mind to an appreciation of the things you’re seeing, smelling, and feeling right now and you will slip into a grateful mindset without even trying.

What are the Differences Between Grateful and Thankful?

Although the two words overlap and are often used interchangeably in speech, there are some clear differences between grateful and thankful. Let’s start by looking at the difference between a letter of gratitude and a thank you note.

If you were to write a letter of gratitude, you would start by thinking about someone who has made some kind of difference in your life that still lasts to this day.

In a gratitude letter, you would want to describe what this person did to make an impact on your life, tell them why you’re grateful for what they did, and explain how their actions affected or continue to affect your life.

This type of letter differs from a thank you note because it implies that you recognize how another person was able to make your life better in the long-term–likely through their actions, rather than by giving a gift that isn’t meant to last forever.

Let’s look at some other ways these terms differ from each other.

Rather than saying a quick, “thank you” to the person who holds a door open for you, feeling gratitude means you’re able to appreciate the abundance of positive things in your life–or, the abundance of people in the world who are willing to be helpful.

When people are grateful, their appreciation is often intentionally expressed through their actions rather than reciting “thank you” on autopilot.

Gratitude grows over time. Let’s say you’re leaving a job and the company throws you a goodbye party. While that is a nice thing to do, it probably won’t impact you on a daily basis down the road.

However, if your boss has been providing you with positive letters of recommendation and has gone out of his or her way to ensure your long-term success after leaving the company, that will make a positive impact on your long-term professional wellbeing.

When it comes to the second, third, and fourth time your boss talks to another potential employer, your sense of gratitude for your boss will likely grow with each effort he or she makes.

This sense of gratitude can impact your future when an employee of your own is looking for a recommendation letter down the line. You will remember how your boss made you feel, which will lead to a willingness to do the same thing for someone else.

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The person who feels a sense of gratitude may not reciprocate back instantly but rather may do something to help someone else out in the future.

Helping other people is also a result of gratitude if you’re doing something to “pay it forward” after someone performed an act of kindness for you. In this instance, you’re spreading that feeling of gratefulness among other people.

Gratitude (and its effects) can be seen at an individual level as well as at a larger social level. The person who feels a sense of gratitude may not reciprocate back instantly but rather may do something to help someone else out in the future. This process expands the network of gratitude.

For example, think back to a time when you were sick and a friend went out of their way to visit you and spend some time offering companionship.

While you will probably thank them before they leave, you may not reciprocate that action immediately. Rather, you might feel inspired next time you know someone who is sick to go visit them because you remember how the effort made you feel.

Final Thoughts on Being Grateful vs Thankful

Today, we discussed the definitions and differences of grateful vs thankful. There are a lot of conflicting definitions of the two words, and they have often been used interchangeably.

The takeaway from this post is that although gratefulness and thankfulness are often interchanged when we’re expressing gratitude, they are not actually the same. Knowing the difference can help you better identify whether what you’re experiencing is thankfulness or gratefulness.

Since we’re on the subject of gratitude, you might also want to check out these articles:

Thanklessness deprives people of the emotional rewards of gratitude.

Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.

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