Are You a ThanksGiver or a ThanksHaver?

Popular with feasts of thanks around the world is the act of gathering around the dinner table and sharing what inspires gratitude. Be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, South Korea’s Chuseok, the Hindu festival of Pongal, Germany’s Erntedankfest, the Jewish Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), these events provide a ritualized opportunity for people to ponder and share what inspires them to feel grateful.

There’s no question that being in the space of gratitude can offer many psychological and physical health benefits. An “attitude of gratitude,” if cultivated regularly over time, shifts our attention to what is good in our lives, and encourages more of it. However, if the intention of our “giving of thanks” is to share our gratitude with a person or people whose acts have benefitted us, I’m willing to bet that a dirty little secret no one shares is that, even when the gratitude expressed may be genuine, it often fails at its purpose of inspiring good feelings in the receiver.

Again, it’s not that there isn’t value in counting one’s blessings; it’s merely that expressions of gratitude towards another do not provide as much value as we think because it emphasizes the experiencer and not necessarily the person who inspired the feeling. 

Gratitude is an expression about how someone feels. At its core it can be a selfish act – you are talking about yourself and what you have received, and not really about another person. Ask a child what they’re thankful for, and you’ll often get a list of toys or other inanimate things.

In a way, expressing gratitude is more like thankshaving, than thanksgiving. It puts the focus on what you are feeling and asks the receiver to take extra steps to feel the way you feel. For the good feelings expressed through your gratitude to be felt by another person requires them to co-dependently take personal responsibility for your feelings (i.e., “my actions created their happiness”), or to have enough empathy to translate your words into an emotion that resonates with them.

If that person is in alignment with you, their amygdala will kick in, and they will mirror your emotions. If they are not, the gratitude will stop with the experiencer, and the whole effort will have been for the benefit of the “giver” and not the intended “receiver.” It’s like giving someone a photo of yourself as a birthday present.

If you want to give your thanks to another person, consider appreciating them instead. Compare the phrases, “I am grateful for…” and “I appreciate…” The first phrase is about you ― literally about your present state. The second phrase is about others ― the objects of your appreciation. Expressions of appreciation take the focus off of you and how you feel, and frame the thanks around the other person and their actions; what they do, who they are, how they make you feel. Unlike gratitude, appreciation is about how ― and more importantly why ― you value others. 

For example, you may be grateful for a harvest meal. But to truly appreciate it requires you to ponder all the elements and people that came together to create that meal, from the meal’s cook(s) to the people who raised the food, and even to the food that gave its life for the meal, and then express that thanks to all of those entities.

By calling out the good qualities we see in others and how their actions benefit us, we give others specific and measurable feedback that is about them, not just us and how we feel. By recognizing and honoring them for who they are and their actions, we give them a gift that bolsters them and builds them up. The expression is not for our benefit (though appreciating others does feel good), but solely for them. 

With appreciation, you are genuinely thanksgiving. Being recognized and acknowledged is a gift anyone can use. It uplifts us and helps us hold more value for ourselves and that goodness we feel is contagious. Feeling appreciated feels so good, we naturally want others to feel that same way, so we spread it around to others. Our inspiration influences others to feel more positive, uplifted and appreciated. Then they go out into their world and spread more appreciation around. 

It is this ripple effect that makes expressions of appreciation so much more potent than everyday gratitude. While the energy of gratitude may stop with the giver, the power of appreciation is the gift that keeps on giving. An “attitude of gratitude” can benefit your life, but an “attitude of appreciation” can improve the world one thanksgiving at a time.

This holiday season and beyond, pay attention to whether your expressions of thanks focus on being grateful for what you have received, or on appreciating the people who have made a difference in your life. If you find yourself focusing on yourself, consider making this slight adjustment to how you express your thanks, from gratitude to appreciation.

To get started this week, commit to sharing your specific appreciation with at least one person a day. Take note of how your gift affects them. Over time, see if you notice yourself naturally sharing appreciation with more than one person a day, and what ripple effects it creates. 

“Appreciation is the highest form of prayer, for it acknowledges the presence of good wherever you shine the light of your thankful thoughts.” ― Alan Cohen, American author (1950 – )

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