Beyond the Customary Thank You

“The best way to express one’s gratitude to the Divine is to feel simply happy.” – The Mother

If we were to think specifically about it, many of us would feel that we don’t give or hear expressions of gratitude as often as we should. If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Honorable exceptions apart, most of us have made a habit of cursorily thanking others whether it be a friend, a teacher, a colleague, a neighbor, or even a family member, let alone a stranger. Understandably, said Samuel Johnson, “Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.” Despite the fact that most religions encourage thankfulness and gratitude, to God and His created beings for their acts of benevolence and generosity, we do not seem to thank them enough or in as much depth as we ought to do. We should, however, always remember that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”  (Cicero)

Expressing gratitude helps people feel more positive, cherish good experiences, and think more deeply about what they have rather than what they lack. If someone in your life selflessly does something for you and you want to express gratitude, common expressions of thanks might not be enough. If the person has improved your life in a powerful way, it is important to find an appropriate way to express gratitude that communicates your appreciation with utmost sincerity. In fact, Buddha carried the concept to another extreme when he said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

What is gratitude, after all? “Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.” (Henry Ward Beecher) In that sense gratitude does not just include saying “thank you” and being polite; but it is much more than that. Expressing Gratitude is the beginning of courtesy, generosity, concern and appreciation for others. A deeply felt and fully expressed gratitude is an effective way to positively influence attitudes and behavior, firstly our own and then, that of others. Learning to feel and express gratitude can have a significant effect on the happiness and success for both ourselves and others around us.

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month. Of course, studies such as this one cannot prove cause and effect. But most of the studies published on this topic support an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.

Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship. In the business world, Managers who remember to say “thank you” to people who work for them may find that those employees feel motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group – assigned to work on a different day – received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not.

There are some notable exceptions to the generally positive results in research on gratitude. One study found that middle-aged divorced women who kept gratitude journals were no more satisfied with their lives than those who did not. Another study found that children and adolescents who wrote and delivered a thank-you letter to someone who made a difference in their lives may have made the other person happier – but did not improve their own well-being. This finding suggests that gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity. “The deepest craving of all human nature is the need to be appreciated.” (William James)

Philosophers and poets have long praised gratitude as one of the most desirable attributes of noble men and women. Surely, each of us has much to be thankful for. Why not express our gratitude? “There is no such thing as gratitude unexpressed.  If it is unexpressed, it is plain, old-fashioned ingratitude.” (Robert Brault) “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” (William Arthur Ward)

How to go about expressing our gratitude? The quickest, simplest and easiest way to demonstrate gratitude is to say thanks to another. If we don’t have a specific item to express thanks for, saying a few kind words would be just as effective. Kind words earnestly spoken are like healing balm to a troubled soul. They work equally well for those who are stressed, feel unappreciated, are lonely, ill, tired or just a bit anxious or depressed. Just think, don’t you feel a little better when someone has a kind thing to say to you?

First of all, saying thank you is indicative of good manners. It is the quickest and easiest way to ensure that you are seen as polite. Let us admit that we are more likely to remember when someone doesn’t say thank you after we’ve invested time and energy into helping him. Besides sounding more polite, saying thank you indicates that youunderstand and respect that the other person offered you their time, energy, knowledge, or assistance. Showing appreciation has an additional benefit inasmuch as it enables us to connect with others. When we sincerely appreciate how other people contribute to our lives, it creates a deeper shared bond between us. In turn, this often leads to a stronger friendship or a more supportive work relationship with more opportunities to work together and collaborating in the future. Sincerity is the key. When we are being sincere, we truly mean what we say, our feelings are authentic, and our attitude is genuine, not fake. It shows when people truly appreciate us!

When we appreciate someone or something, we perform an action. We recognize the value of something we received, the time someone spent with us, or their contribution to our lives. Appreciation goes beyond words: it’s a deeper feeling that we experience. When we show appreciation, we demonstrate these feelings through words or actions or both. This usually involves saying a genuine thank you, either publicly or privately, and being clear and specific about what we appreciate. Gratitude, the ultimate virtue, can be considered an attitude or an approach to living a good life. It describes thestate of being grateful or thankful due to a consistent awareness of the positive aspects of our life. For many people, gratitude is actually a practice, something we may choose to do on a daily basis. To sum up, thanks are simply words, appreciation is an action, and gratitude is a practice. We can, however, be thankful, appreciative, and grateful all at the same time!

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.