Every year on Thanksgiving Day, I scroll through my iPhone contact list of “favorites” and send a text message to my dearest friends and family members. I typically end these texts with lines such as “I am so thankful to have you in my life” or “I am so grateful to know you.” But each year, my choice of diction raises the same question for me. What is the difference between being thankful and being grateful?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, thankful and grateful are synonymous with the exception of two operative words. It defines thankful as “conscious of benefits received” while defining grateful as “appreciative of benefits received.” I think the difference between “conscious” and “appreciative” signifies that we experience thankfulness and gratitude for others in two different ways.
Being thankful is to be merely conscious or aware of the actions of another person. Therefore, the words “thank you” and “thanks” have come to hold less meaning for us. We mutter them from the corners of our mouths after someone holds the door open for us or hands us our morning coffee. Too often, saying “thank you” is merely polite behavior. Too often, “thanks” is just an automatic reply.
Being grateful is a different experience. Being grateful necessitates that we are first affected by one another. Gratitude then involves a period of reflection, perhaps through writing or thoughtful meditation, in which we allow ourselves enough time to understand our appreciation of this person. True gratitude expresses “thank you” not solely from our mouths but also from our hearts. Gratitude transforms a hardwired response into an intentional discipline.
When we center ourselves on the discipline of gratitude, Thanksgiving Day can take on a new depth of meaning. The main events on television, such as the Macy’s parade, the National Dog Show and a marathon of football games display people (and dogs) who have practiced extensively to perform their best during their respective events. In the same way, we must practice gratitude extensively in order to truly voice our appreciation to the people we love most dearly.
Gratitude, unlike thankfulness, is a deliberate practice. St. Ignatius of Loyola created the Examen as a daily practice to cultivate gratitude as the foundation of a relationship with God. The Examen recalls our experience of the day through prayer in order to help us recall when we felt God’s presence. When I practice the Examen, I tend to feel God’s presence most deeply through the people I encounter throughout the day. I believe many others feel this way as well.
On Thursday, I plan to voice my gratitude, rather than thankfulness, to the people who mean the most to me. Although I suppose some “thank yous” are given from the heart and received that way too, this year, I will make sure to end my texts with “I am so grateful for you.” And at the end of the day, after deliberate and intentional spiritual practice, I know that my heart will be as full as my turkey-filled belly.