Gratitude Should Not Be Transactional

Gratitude exists at the intersection of reflection and kindness.


“Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves, and spend without fear of bankruptcy.” — Fred De Witt Van Amburgh


As we’re deluged with messages of gratitude and thankfulness — from brands, emails, books and the like — it all seems to be so mechanical.

Someone says this, you say that. Make a gesture, then reap the reward.

That’s not what the true spirit of gratitude is about. There’s a difference between thankfulness and gratitude.

We teach children to say “thank you” when someone says something nice or does something for them. It’s proper etiquette. But at its core, it’s reactive.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is a deeper consideration. It’s a two-step process: first, we see goodness and affirm it, and then we recognize that goodness is external — it comes to us.

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We can be thankful as a part of practicing gratitude, but gratitude is a behavior, not a set of actions. It can only come through practice and a conscious effort, at the intersection of reflection and kindness.

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“Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.” —Fred Rogers Who’s the kindest person you know? Someone who exudes “nice.” Who is always willing to help without a complaint. Who offers a smile and an encouraging word…
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Gratitude is a virtue — Cicero called it the greatest virtue and “the parent of all others” — which means that it’s something we hold deep within ourselves. And as a virtue, it is expressed in everything that we do.

In 1902, William George Jordan wrote an essay in The Power of Truth: Individual Problems and Possibilities called “The Courage to Face Ingratitude” that addresses this principle:

“Gratitude is thankfulness expressed in action. It is the instinctive radiation of justice, giving new life and energy to the individual from whom it emanates. It is the heart’s recognition of kindness that the lips cannot repay. Gratitude never counts its payments. It realizes that no debt of kindness can ever be outlawed, ever be cancelled, ever paid in full. Gratitude ever feels the insignificance of its instalments [sic]; ingratitude the nothingness of the debt. Gratitude is the flowering of a seed of kindness; ingratitude is the dead inactivity of a seed dropped on a stone.

“Man should not be an automatic gas-machine, cleverly contrived to release a given quantity of illumination under the stimulus of a nickel. He should be like the great sun itself which ever radiates light, warmth, life and power, because it cannot help doing so, because these qualities fill the heart of the sun, and for it to have them means that it must give them constantly. Let the sunlight of our sympathy, tenderness, love, appreciation, influence and kindness ever go out from us as a glow to brighten and hearten others. But do not let us ever spoil it all by going through life constantly collecting receipts, as vouchers, to stick on the file of our self-approval.”

I’m struck by the connection of gratitude to kindness (Episode 2 of my Timeless Leadership podcast 👇) and the selflessness with which gratitude envelops us.

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But that last phrase of Jordan’s — “constantly collecting receipts” — perfectly illustrates how some people go about what they think is gratitude.

“The gratitude of most men is but a secret desire of receiving greater benefits.” — La Rochefoucauld

When I first came across the above quote by La Rochefoucauld, I considered it cynical. But in reflecting on the true nature of gratitude and its importance as a virtue, I realized there’s much truth in it.

If we try for values-led personal lives and strategy-led business lives rather than transactional ones, we’ll improve the world around us.

What you do and say, today and every day, is a reflection of who you are and, in turn, it shines on the world.

It’s the premise of my friend Harry Cohen’s book Be the Sun, Not the Salt. People, like flowers, naturally turn toward the sun.

While Thanksgiving is a holiday that consists of a single day, if we practice gratitude, our thanks and reflection should extend beyond one turkey dinner. Every day in our homes and workplaces should be a time to demonstrate what we believe and how we share the gifts we've been granted.

“Let us conceive of gratitude in its largest, most beautiful sense, that if we receive any kindness we are debtor, not merely to one man, but to the whole world. As we are each day indebted to thousands for the comforts, joys, consolations, and blessings of life, let us realize that it is only by kindness to all that we can begin to repay the debt to one, begin to make gratitude the atmosphere of all our living and a constant expression in outward acts, rather than in mere thoughts. Let us see the awful cowardice and the injustice of ingratitude, not to take it too seriously in others, not to condemn it too severely, but merely to banish it forever from our own lives, and to make every hour of our living the radiation of the sweetness of gratitude.”— William George Jordan


Wishing you all the best this Thanksgiving holiday with a grateful heart.


“I have gathered a posy of other men's flowers, and only the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne


In Praise of Gratitude

Expressing thanks may be one of the simplest ways to feel better. In a study, psychologists found that those who take the time to write daily about things they're grateful for (as opposed to another group that wrote daily about things that irritated them), were more apt to be optimistic and feel better about their lives. (Harvard Health)


Making Grateful Kids

The concern that most parents have about their kids is that they might develop a sense of entitlement. What is entitlement, but ingratitude, and the easiest antidote is to teach them an attitude of appreciation, through some simple steps.  (The Art of Manliness).


A Pilgrim’s Drunken Progress

“The first Thanksgiving included thanks for a successful barley crop, which allowed for the brewing of beer, and aqua vitae, or “strong water,” was used to smooth over discussions with the Wampanoags. Alcohol was essential to the survival of the colony, both as a drink and a currency, and a great deal of energy and time was dedicated to lawmaking and law enforcing surrounding the making, selling, and drinking of alcohol.” (Lapham’s Quarterly)



“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” — Ferris Bueller


Gratitude for Yourself

It’s difficult to reflect on your own successes, talents, and accomplishments when you’re envious of other people. You’ll gain a sense of gratitude if you stop comparing yourself to others. (Forbes)


Thankful Quotes

The last couple of years have been trying. So when family gathers for Thanksgiving, you may want these inspirational quotes to help you make the most of it. (TODAY)


Saying Thank you 9,200 Times a Year

When his brother-in-law hired him, Sheldon Yellen wanted to prove that he wasn't being given special treatment. So he began writing birthday cards to employees, which he hoped would bring them by his office to say thank you. It did more than that: it got people talking and they started communicating more. It also established a culture of kindness and thoughtfulness within the company. This CEO writes 9,200 employee birthday cards each year. (Business Insider)

A Heart Replete with Thankfulness

“Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” – G.K. Chesterton

The title of this section, while it mentions the more transactional thankfulness, is actually inspired from William Shakespeare's The Second Part of Henry VI. In the opening scene, the king is talking about Queen Margaret:

O Lord, that lends me life,
Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness!
For thou hast given me in this beauteous face
A world of earthly blessings to my soul.

I’m grateful to have mentors and inspirations in my life who not only give me reasons to believe in myself, but also help me to reflect on how can can improve, every day.

Recommended Reading/Listening

“Let me recommend this book.” – Arthur Conan Doyle

Gratitude is the one thing that helped host Georgian Benta most in his life from all the personal development and spiritual practices and that’s why he wants to inspire 100,000 people to discover how to feel grateful more often and live a happy life. He interviews successful people and gets them to share fascinating stories about how gratitude has helped them get to where they are now on The Gratitude Podcast.

The Little Book of Gratitude by Robert A. Eammons is shows us more about the simple, scientifically proven way to increase happiness and encourage greater joy, love, peace, and optimism in our lives. Through easy practices such as keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing letters of thanks, and meditating on the good we have received, we can improve our health and wellbeing, enhance our relationships, encourage healthy sleep, and heighten feelings of connectedness.

Enjoy the rest of the week, wherever you are.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.

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