November 2014

The Many Facets of "Thank You"


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When you study a foreign language, one of the first things you learn is how to say “thank you.” It’s one of the most basic phrases, along with “hello” and “goodbye.” Though it seems simple, ”thank you” has numerous intriguing facets. This month let’s take a look at those facets. Along the way, we’ll find out that there’s scientific evidence that expressing thanks more often can actually improve our well-being.

Appreciation

The most prominent facet of “thank you” is, of course, appreciation. “Thank you” is how we express our appreciation when someone gives us a present or pays us a compliment or helps us with a project. That expression of appreciation conveys that we don’t take the other person’s action for granted. We’re recognizing and acknowledging their efforts and intentions. In addition to thanking an individual or a group, we can also express appreciation to the Universe in general—we can feel grateful when we view a gorgeous sunset or when a loved one recovers from an illness or in countless other circumstances. We might silently say “Thanks” in such circumstances or we might mention out loud that we’re grateful. Expressing appreciation can imprint an experience on our heart. According to the 19th-century French educator, Jean Baptiste Massieu, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.”

Present moment

When we’re saying “thank you,” we’re typically focusing on what is, instead of focusing on what could have been in the past or what might be in the future. In a sense, gratitude can be viewed as a signpost that is pointing to the present moment. When we’re truly experiencing gratitude, we’re usually not getting caught up in regrets, resentments or worries. Instead of dwelling in the past or future, we’re focusing awareness on what we have, what we’ve been given, what is good in our lives now.

Interconnectedness

Giving thanks can powerfully remind us of how we are all interconnected. Consider your Thanksgiving dinner. An enormous number of people will have helped to make it possible, including all of the individuals involved in producing the food, processing it, transporting it and selling it. Not to be forgotten are all of the people who created things such as the packaging for the food, the plates, the napkins and the silverware. It’s hard to fathom how many people contribute in some fashion to that one meal. Such reflections on our interconnectedness can lead to feelings of humility. We can be reminded of how we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves and of how everything is interdependent.

Recognition of spirit

In a sense, when we say “thank you” to another person, we are recognizing the life-energy that they have put into something. Recognition of that life-energy can be viewed as recognition of that person’s spirit. This brings to mind the Sanskrit word “Namaste,” which is sometimes said by teacher and students at the end of yoga classes (and is also said in various other settings). A popular translation of Namaste is “The Divine in me honors the Divine in you.” Interestingly, Namaste is considered to be an expression of gratitude. “Thank you,” in some situations, can be viewed as an English version of Namaste. That view might help to explain why many of us at times respond to “thank you” by saying “thank you.”

Prayer

Giving thanks has long been considered to be a form of prayer. Over 600 years ago, the German theologian Meister Eckhart observed, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Much more recently, in her book Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott describes “Thanks” as one of the three essential prayers. Some people begin their day with a prayer of thanks for the gift of a new day. And of course some people say a prayer of thanks before a meal, either on an everyday basis or on special occasions.

Complexities

Before proceeding any further, let’s acknowledge that gratitude has its complexities. For example, it can be hard to say “thank you” when you are given something that you really don’t want or need. You can appreciate the giver’s intentions and effort, but it can be tough to express thanks if a gift feels like a burden. Sometimes upon receipt of a gift, a person will say, “You shouldn’t have,” and they truly do mean those words! Also, receiving a gift can at times lead the recipient to feel indebted to the giver, and that can feel burdensome. And in some cases, presents are given in an attempt to manipulate the recipient, and saying thanks in such a situation can be awkward at best.

Misuses

Sadly, gratitude can be misused. Some expressions of gratitude make it sound like the recipient is so fortunate to have received a particular gift and those without that gift are unfortunate. Such expressions come across as sad attempts at feeling superior to others or at separating one’s self from others. Any expression of gratitude that sounds like bragging could be considered to be a form of gratitude malpractice.

Science of gratitude

Studying gratitude has become an area of psychological research in recent years. A leading researcher in the field is Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis. In his books, he presents evidence that practicing gratitude on a regular basis can improve a person’s well-being. He wrote, “We discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and interpersonal.” Such benefits include higher levels of happiness, better sleep, more energy and improved relationships.

Practices

How can we systematically cultivate gratitude in our lives? There are many ways that we can make a point of saying “thank you.” A tried-and-true method is to keep a gratitude journal, in which each day you write down five things that you’re grateful for on that specific day. The list for a given day could include an email from a faraway friend, a cup of chai tea, a beautiful blue sky, a favorite piece of music, a wonderful dinner, or other things that you experienced and appreciated on that day. Sarah Ban Breathnach, who popularized the concept of a gratitude journal, tells us that “The Gratitude Journal is a polite daily thank-you note to the Universe.”

A related practice is a gratitude list, a much longer list on which you include everything in your life that you can think of that you’re grateful for. Such a list might have 100 or more items! You can refer back to and add to this list on a regular basis.

Simply making an effort to say “thank you” more often can be a gratitude practice. And of course, writing thank-you notes can be a valuable habit. Nowadays, thank-you notes can be sent in texts and emails as well as in cards.

As mentioned earlier, praying and gratitude have an important connection. Cultivating gratitude through prayers of thanks is another practice to consider.

Another type of practice could be called a “gratitude walk.” If you go out for a walk regularly for fresh air and exercise, you can make your experience more beneficial by practicing gratitude. You can really notice and appreciate sunshine, puffy clouds, birds, trees, flowers and so on while you are out on a walk.

The most basic practice is probably to make a point of appreciating various aspects of our lives—big and small—on a daily basis. As the author G. K. Chesterton remarked, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”


“Thank you” is a multi-faceted gem of an expression. When you glance at it, appreciation is what you notice first. But when you look more closely, you can see that there are other facets, including the present moment, interconnectedness, recognition of spirit, and prayer. Although “thank you” is not as simple as it seems, fortunately it can be straightforward to cultivate gratitude and to experience many benefits as a result.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the November 2014 issue

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