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  • Writer's pictureJackie Windham

Gratitude Is Good; Appreciation Is Better

KEY POINTS

  • Gratitude is a wonderful state of mind, but it tends to be short-lived and subject to inhibitions.

  • Appreciation is a more rewarding quality to develop in terms of improving self-value and relationships.

  • Appreciation is more contagious than gratitude and more likely to prompt reciprocation.

  • Appreciation generates gratitude, but we’re often grateful for help from loved ones without appreciating their efforts and hardships.


Gratitude and appreciation both facilitate love and emotional growth. It’s hard to imagine enduring love and expansive emotional growth without some gratitude and a lot of appreciation. Authors tend to conflate concepts of gratitude and appreciation or to use the terms interchangeably. Research is mainly about gratitude because it’s easier to operationalize and more amenable to self-report. Yet there are differences that make appreciation a more rewarding quality to develop in terms of improving self-value and relationships. Gratitude is a wonderful state of mind, but it tends to be short-lived and subject to inhibitions. In relationships it depends on someone doing something for you. Because it’s short-lived, it can trigger resentment when someone doesn’t do what you want, leading to the short-sighted attitude: What have you done for me lately? Gratitude is not a function of the autopilot brain. We need to reflect on the context of behaviors and relationships to experience it, much less sincerely communicate it. The autopilot brain is sensitive to when other people are not grateful to us, yet not so much aware of our own failures of gratitude. Children are not by nature grateful and are unlikely to see its benefits unless it’s regularly modeled for them. They need to see their parents practice gratitude. Modeling is key, not making them say “thank you,” which can diminish gratitude to a rote response. Politeness is fine, but it’s not gratitude.

Inhibitors For adults, the major inhibitors of gratitude are guilt, shame, and entitlement. We tend to be more aware of inhibitors in retrospect. Think of past behaviors, going back to adolescence, when you took for granted that which other people did for you and resented if they called you ungrateful. We’re less aware that failures to be grateful in the past create a block to gratitude in the present. I’m less likely to be grateful for my partner now because it would stimulate guilt for all my past failures. Some people feel inadequate (ashamed) when it comes to gratitude, probably because it was never modeled for them. When they witness gratitude in others, they seem uncomfortable or impatient, or they characterize it as phony. The natural defense against shame and inadequacy is distraction; we try not to think of things that make us feel inadequate. Gratitude is hardly ever on the minds of those who feel inadequate concerning it. Many people feel shame for needing help from others. Relatives who need money from you are unlikely to show gratitude for very long, once you give it to them. Homeless people rarely make eye contact when you give them food or money and may sound understandably insincere if they thank you. Entitlement is a way of avoiding guilt and shame over failures of gratitude. People with little gratitude tend to appear to others as entitled. They may frame desires in the pop-psychology vernacular of “emotional needs” that their partners must meet. Perceiving themselves to have needs, they feel entitled to have their partners fulfill them, regardless of what their partners want. We’re unlikely to feel grateful to partners for meeting their “obligations” to satisfy our “needs,” but we’ll almost certainly resent them if they do not. In my clinical experience, when clients learn to overcome the guilt and shame of gratitude failures, they become more appreciative, less demanding, and more gratified in their relationships. In other words, they achieve stronger love and emotional growth. Appreciation As a felt condition, appreciation can be stimulated in the autopilot brain, although it needs reflective effort to fully experience it. Infants exhibit primitive appreciative behavior when played with and breastfed. In adults, appreciation is opening your heart to feel the improvement in your experience that the presence of someone or something brings. It engenders admiration of those whom we appreciate. As a mental state, it doesn’t require transactions or even interactions. I appreciate my wife even when she’s visiting relatives in China. Appreciation is more likely to overcome inhibitions of guilt and shame because we like ourselves better when appreciative. Appreciation's unique enhancement of self-value is a potent reinforcer of behavior. Appreciation is more behavioral and attitudinal and more likely to motivate positive behavior change. Gratitude for good health hardly occurs every day. Appreciation of good health will be manifest in healthy eating and other activities that promote good health. Appreciation is more contagious than gratitude and more likely to prompt reciprocation; spouses are more likely to appreciate us when we appreciate them. It’s also more generalizable than gratitude. Appreciating your spouse and children in the morning gives a positive slant to the day, with less expectation of benign behaviors from coworkers. Showing gratitude for loved ones in the morning is likely to make us sensitive to what other people are doing — and not doing — for us. Appreciation generates gratitude, but not the other way around. We’re often grateful for help from loved ones without appreciating their efforts and hardships. Think of your subtle fantasies. Are they more about someone appreciating you or showing gratitude for what you’ve done for them?

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