When it comes to nuances, the English language has plenty. It’s not a language that reveals its secrets easily. That’s true both for native speakers and those who are using English as a second language. The grateful vs. thankful debate illustrates this point in a beautiful way.
In all honesty, it took me a while to get the hang of these two concepts. I used to use them interchangeably whenever I was grateful for something.
However, I quickly noticed that some of my friends used one of the two terms exclusively, while others used the other one. That left me wondering why that might be the case, and a trip down a particular linguistic lane taught me all about the grateful vs. thankful debate.
The Confusing Overlap
Although there’s a significant overlap between these two concepts, they are actually different. In simple terms, you can think of it this way:
• You’re thankful that your boss didn’t fire you when they caught you making a grave mistake.
• However, you are grateful that you got to keep your job in these uncertain times.
So, being thankful usually involves your thankfulness to another person. On the other hand, being grateful doesn’t have to include another participant. You can simply be grateful in general. What’s more, gratitude is more general, while thankfulness is more specific.
The definitions have a great deal of overlap, but the general difference is pretty simple. To break it down in simple terms (and use the previous example), if you keep your job after making a mistake, you’ll be thankful to your boss but grateful to the universe, a higher power, or just for your luck.
Grateful vs. Thankful — the Basics
The grateful vs. thankful debate might not seem important to you at this particular moment, but knowing what each concept signifies can actually improve your life. Depending on the situation, you’ll be able to express yourself and your gratitude (or thankfulness) in a more thoughtful manner. That, in turn, might improve your communication with other people.
The No-Nonsense Definitions
If you ask the almighty Google for help, it will quickly tell you the definitions of the two terms.
Feeling grateful means that you are aware of the specific long-term benefits of something, and you’re appreciative of that. Thankfulness means that you’re conscious of particular benefits and pleased about them.
In other words, gratitude is a feeling, and it’s quite complex, while thankfulness is an act (or a reaction to something specific).
Why People Confuse Thankful and Grateful
Although the definitions of these two terms are quite clear and even distinct, there’s still quite a bit of overlap. If you go back to the example that pertains to keeping a job in uncertain times, which I gave in the previous section, you can still be grateful to your boss for not firing you, right?
Well, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can use the two terms interchangeably. In fact, both of these terms are quite complex. Some might say that they are layered almost equally, although gratitude has a few more layers than thankfulness.
Here’s what I mean by that. Both feelings come about after you receive a specific benefit, right? However, thankfulness is more instantaneous than gratitude. You receive a benefit, you become conscious of it, and you’re thankful for it.
What’s more, you’ll probably express your thankfulness in a superficial, acute manner. You’ll thank the person that helped you and be on your merry way.
On the other hand, gratitude is a more permanent feeling of appreciation. It makes you want to return the kindness shown to you.
So Where’s the Overlap?
Gratefulness and thankfulness are intertwined. You feel the gratitude, and you act on it, expressing your thankfulness. However, although gratefulness practically includes thankfulness, it can also have more prominent effects on you.
You express gratitude in a more sophisticated manner than thankfulness. Sure, it can be a fleeting thing, but when you’re grateful for something, that feeling usually stays with you. Therefore, it potentially has the power to change your temperament and the way you act.
For example, let’s, once again, go back to my original example of keeping your job in uncertain times. You’re grateful for that, right? And it makes you more appreciative of the job itself and all the benefits it brings you long-term. So, your actions and your attitude towards your job change.
In other words, gratefulness (and acting on it) can change your mindset.
Grateful vs. Thankful — How To Tell Them Apart
If you want to be able to make a clear distinction between these two terms, here are some hard facts about both.
• It is habitual and can even be automatic. You can express your thanks without even thinking about it, and forget about it in the blink of an eye. The same goes for receiving someone’s thankfulness, given that the expression is usually only verbal.
• It is a social concept of politeness, and people are pretty much conditioned into expressing it.
• Usually directly involves other people.
• It happens at the surface and is a polite way of expressing appreciation for a specific act or behavior.
Gratefulness, on the other hand, is something quite different:
• Although you can be grateful to people, gratitude is usually a feeling associated with something more than a singular act. What’s more, gratefulness is an internal concept that doesn’t have as much to do with people as it does with the positive changes in our lives that happened due to people, events, or circumstances (or a higher power).
• It’s a manifestation of the positive, appreciative feeling you have due to the positive changes in your life. It isn’t necessarily limited to people that had something to do with those changes.
• It’s a feeling of such thankfulness and appreciation that some people feel the need to repay it or show the same kindness to others.
Examples of Grateful Vs. Thankful
If you’re still confused or unsure of the difference, here are a few good examples that will highlight the nuances.
You might be thankful if:
• A friend gives you a birthday present.
• Someone helps you fix your car.
• A family member takes you on vacation to a foreign country.
• Your significant other takes you out on a date.
• Your coworkers invite you to drinks after a hard day at the office.
On the other hand, you might feel grateful that:
• Your friends love you enough to show you kindness when it’s your birthday.
• You have the financial means to own and maintain a vehicle.
• The opportunity to explore other countries and meet people from different cultures is available to you.
• You have someone who loves and understands you.
• You have a job and the financial means to socialize.
A Few Parting Words
Living your life with a constant feeling of gratitude for the things, people, and opportunities you have will make you a better person. It will make you more aware of everything positive in your life and stop you from focusing on the negative. What’s more, it will also potentially push you to be more kind to others.
Once we become aware of all the good things in our lives, we also become aware that not everyone is in the same situation as we are. Therefore, if we’re grateful for everything the universe sent our way, and we’re constantly aware of it, we’ll be more likely to lend a helping hand to others who have a harder life than we do.
And that’s precisely why the grateful vs. thankful debate matters. The more we know, the more aware we are of our own feelings, thus making it easier to act on them. Showing gratitude, kindness, and general good faith to other people will ultimately make our lives happier.