Grateful vs thankful…ever wondered, what’s the difference?
Within the journaling community, many of us spend a bit of time each day practicing gratitude and cultivating a grateful mindset. If you’ve built a gratitude journal into your own journaling practice, you might even use these words interchangeably when you’re expressing gratitude as part of your morning or end of the day routine.
However, there is a slight difference in their meaning, which is what I dig into in this article.
When we are grateful, we are appreciative of what we have received. On the other hand, when we are thankful, we express our gratitude for what we have been given.
Wait….aren’t those the same things?
Although they may seem the same, being gratitude versus thankfulness has a different focus.
You feel blessed for what you have already received when you are grateful. Gratefulness is about acknowledging all of the good in your life already.
Thankfulness, however, is more focused on the present moment. You are appreciative of what you have at this very moment.
Let’s say that a friend buys you a coffee. Feelings of gratefulness for this kindness might nudge you to think about other times people have been kind to you, or to acknowledge what a blessing it is to have this friend in your life. You might reflect on how this act of kindness makes you feel, and how much happiness and goodness you have in your life.
Compare that to feeling thankful to the friend, which is more about being appreciative for the coffee, at that moment.
Both gratitude and thankfulness are important emotions to feel. They both help us to appreciate the goodness in our lives.
The next time you’re choosing a gratitude prompt or free writing in your gratitude journal, take a moment to consider which word feels truer for you in the situation…or maybe both?
General Meaning of the Word Grateful
Grateful is an adjective that means happy and content with what one has. I think this is part of it, but it can also describe feeling thankful, blessed, or fortunate.
For example, you might say you’re grateful for your health, family, or job. Or, you might be grateful to a friend for always being there for you.
When used as a verb, gratitude typically means showing appreciation for something. For example, you might express gratitude to a colleague who helped you with a project at work.
General Meaning of the Word Thankful
Thankful is an adjective that describes feeling gratitude or appreciation for someone or something. It is similar to grateful in that it often refers to general happiness, or blessings.
However, thankful can also be used to express gratitude for positive actions or kindness, or a gift.
For example, while you might say you’re thankful to your boss for a raise, you might also feel grateful that you have a great job you love, and a boss you enjoy working with.
When used as a verb, thankful typically means to express gratitude. For example, you might tell your mother how thankful you are for all she has done for you.
How to Use Each Word Correctly
To me, grateful implies bigger picture gratitude, vs thankful, which is more focused on more immediate moments in time.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when using grateful and thankful:
- Grateful is the more general term of the two and can be used to describe feeling happy with what one has or feeling fortunate in general.
- Thankful is the most immediate or narrow of the terms, and is often used to express gratitude for someone’s specific kindness or a particular gift.
- Sometimes they are used as synonyms, and that’s fine because we all still understand the meaning!
Examples of Each Word in Context
To better understand how these terms are used, let’s look at some examples:
After years of struggling to make ends meet, I’m finally in a good place financially, and I’m so grateful for that. (here, grateful describes feeling happy with what one has).
I want to thank you for your help with the project. I couldn’t have done it without you. (here, thankful is used as a verb meaning to express gratitude)
I’m thankful for my health and the health of my family. (here, thankful describes feeling fortunate, and is one of those “used as a synonym for grateful” situations).
As you can see, both grateful and thankful can be used to practice gratitude and describe feeling happy or fortunate.
However, thankful is more often used specifically, while grateful is used more generally.
Okay But What Does the Dictionary Say? Grateful vs Thankful
From a scholarly perspective, both words denote a positive emotion felt in response to something that one has received or something one has, and really don’t seem that different.
From the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, we have the following definitions:
Grateful: “1. Appreciative of benefits received; thankful. 2. Expressing gratitude; thank-offering. 3. Pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable; welcome: a grateful breeze.”
Thankful: “1. Feeling or showing gratitude; appreciative. 2. Conscious of benefiting from something done or received: thankful for their help.”
Scholarly Meanings vs Every Day Use
While the dictionary difference isn’t that difference, in common usage, people tend to use “grateful” to describe a more general sense of appreciation, and “thankful” more specific gratitude in response to a particular act.
(For example, you might be grateful for your good health while thanking your friend for picking you up from the airport).
So, while there may not be a massive dictionary difference between “grateful” and “thankful,” in general usage, “grateful” describes a more general sense of appreciation. On the contrary, “thankful” describes specific gratitude felt in response to a particular act.
What About the Spiritual Meaning?
From a spiritual standpoint, I think being thankful and being grateful can have different meanings.
When thinking about a higher power or divine presence in life, being thankful means you’re appreciative of what you have. But being grateful means you’re also open to receiving more, and look forward with an abundance mindset.
When you’re thankful, you give thanks for what you have. But when you’re grateful, you’re acknowledging there’s always more to have and that you’re open to receiving it. You can be thankful for your health, but being grateful for your health means you’re actively taking care of it, and looking to improve it.
Being grateful is about having an attitude of abundance in life, believing what you want in life can become reality, whereas being thankful is about appreciation. Gratitude is about looking forward to what’s to come, whereas thankfulness is about enjoying what you have in the present moment.
So, which is better? From a spiritual standpoint, I think it’s better to be grateful than just thankful. Being grateful opens you up to receive even more blessings, whereas being thankful keeps you where you are.
And this is one of the reasons I think gratitude journals are so powerful! They help us be grateful for all the blessings in our lives, and open our lives up to receiving even more!
So…Should I be Grateful or Thankful When Expressing Positive Feelings?
While the two words seem related, there is a big difference between being grateful and being thankful.
Being grateful is more about feeling blessed for what you have. It’s a recognition of all the good in your life, no matter how small. On the other hand, being thankful is acknowledging the value of something specific, often a specific action.
When it comes to living your best life, both gratitude and thankfulness are essential.
Final Thoughts on Expressing Your Positive Feelings
Many people use the words grateful and thankful interchangeably when it comes to expressing appreciation. However, there is a subtle difference between these two terms. While both can describe feeling blessed or fortunate, grateful typically refers to general happiness, while thankful emphasizes specific gratitude for certain acts or kindnesses.
Next time you want to express your appreciation, or pick up your journal to to practice gratitude, consider the right word! Think about the context and whether you want to focus on a general sense of happiness or something more specific that happened, and maybe include both in your gratitude journaling practice.