Explore the benefits of practicing both gratitude and thankfulness in your daily life.

Are you feeling grateful? Or thankful? Can you feel both at the same time? What’s the difference? (More importantly, does it matter?) 

“Grateful” and “thankful” often get used interchangeably. And there’s arguably plenty of overlap between the two. But there are a few key ways in which thankfulness and gratitude differ. Understanding these nuances can help make life feel a whole lot richer and more meaningful. 

Ready for a little compare-and-contrast? Let’s dig in. 

Thankfulness is response rooted in emotion.

Thankfulness is an emotional response to an outcome or benefit in our favor. We can be thankful about a particular situation or set of circumstances. We can also be thankful for the generosity someone showed us or the efforts they made to help us out. 

With thankfulness, there’s a direct connection between something that has happened and the way we feel. We might be thankful because someone returned our phone call. Or because we didn’t get sick before an important event. We feel thankful because of some external factor.

Thankfulness ebbs and flows.

The experience of thankfulness is generally immediate and temporary. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. It simply means that, like a story, thankfulness often has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. In other words, thankfulness is the effect that follows a cause. Our sense of thankfulness emerges because something happens to inspire it. We respond to that thing by feeling thankful. 

A thankfulness practice can give us more to be thankful for.
The emotions that color our thankfulness (think delight, surprise, happiness, relief, etc.) often inspire an outward expression of appreciation. That means we can practice generating thankfulness anytime someone shows us kindness or generosity. We might simply say, “Thank you so much.” We might write them a thank-you card. Or we might do something we know they would appreciate. 

But expressions of thankfulness don’t necessarily involve another person. We can practice thankfulness just by pausing to notice how we feel about something positive that happened. The more we acknowledge and “dwell on” this positivity, the more generally satisfied and content we feel. 

Gratitude is perspective anchored in awareness.

Gratitude is a state of being, whereas thankfulness is the expression of that state of being. Unlike thankfulness, gratitude isn’t an emotion or response to a state of affairs. It’s a mindset rooted in awareness, acceptance, compassion, and non-judgment that exists regardless of external factors. Along with delight, surprise, happiness and relief, gratitude both honors and accommodates difficult feelings such as sorrow, disappointment, and loneliness. 

Gratitude is a way of being in the world — no matter what’s going on.

While thankfulness arises as a result of external factors, gratitude originates within us. Even when we feel angry, afraid, or sad, we can choose to view ourselves and the world through gratitude’s lens of acceptance, compassion, curiosity, and non-judgment. 

And the fact that we can choose this perspective means practicing gratitude in the happy, comfortable, or easy times makes it easier to tap into our gratitude reserves during the tough times. 

Practicing gratitude can rewire our brains to feel more at peace.

When something difficult happens in our lives, it can take a while for us to find our bearings and make our way back to balance and perspective. Sometimes, returning to that balance can feel nearly impossible. 

In part, that’s because the human brain evolved to focus on negative experiences so we could learn from them, remain alert, and stay alive. But although our brains like to focus on the worst-case scenario, we have the power to override that “negativity bias” by taking small, simple, and frequent steps to connect with our inner gratitude reserves.

When we practice gratitude, we set a consistently compassionate tone for our emotional responses — whether our circumstances are pleasant, painful, or somewhere in between. The more often we practice tapping into these gratitude reserves, the more likely our brain is to eventually start defaulting in that direction. Think of it as muscle memory, but for the mind. 

Mindfulness is the first step toward gratitude.

If you’re thinking “muscle memory for the mind” sounds a lot like “mindfulness,” you’re spot-on. Mindfulness offers all kinds of amazing benefits for our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. And it’s something you can practice on your own, or in a supportive group. 

Here at the Y, we offer both ways of getting started with a mindfulness practice. You can check out one of our restorative Group Sound Baths. You can also meet individually with a certified Wellbeing Instructor who can help create a customized mindfulness plan for you, with 1:1 guided exercises and activities you can practice on your own at home. 

Explore Mindfulness at the Y

(Important: If you’re struggling with your mental health, please consider reaching out to a professional instead of relying solely on mindfulness or group coaching to pull you through.) 

What does “acceptance” really mean?

Feeling grateful doesn’t mean we fail to acknowledge the gravity or seriousness of difficult things. Nor does gratitude erase our past challenges or traumas. In fact, gratitude begins with the acknowledgement that “life is not perfect, and neither are we.” As strange as it seems, accepting life’s difficulties frees us up to also accept that life contains beauty, truth, and goodness (and so do we). 

Now, “acceptance” doesn’t mean we enjoy or “agree with” our present circumstances. It just means we aren’t tying up precious emotional and mental resources obsessing or wishing things were some other way. The magic of acceptance is that once we allow it to happen, we free up those valuable internal resources so we can invest them appropriately in our mental health and our path forward. 

Gratitude takes practice — and practice builds healthy habits.

There are countless ways to approach a gratitude practice. The more we practice, the more gratitude becomes a habit. Over time, because of the way our brains work, those habits “rewire” the brain to naturally and automatically have an “attitude of gratitude.” 

10 ways to train your gratitude brain.

These ideas are just a few examples of how you might sprinkle a little gratitude into your day. Although gratitude arises from an internal sense of wellbeing, a gratitude practice can still involve awareness of and appreciation for what’s happening around us. 

Over time, you’ll discover for yourself what kinds of activities and reflections help you recharge your gratitude batteries. Make up your own gratitude “exercises” and share with a friend!

  1. Hold the door open for a stranger. 
  2. Make a list of everything you feel grateful for.
  3. Surprise someone special with a phone call. 
  4. Laugh with a friend. 
  5. Help someone talk through a difficult challenge.
  6. Tell someone how much they mean to you. 
  7. Reflect on a time you stepped outside your comfort zone.
  8. Make an “I did it!” list of things you’ve recently accomplished.
  9. Recall a time when you felt pure joy or contentment. 
  10. Watch the sun rise and set, all in the same day.