Word War: Thankful vs Grateful

When your friend buys you coffee at the start of your shift, are you thankful or grateful for their actions? In normal conversations, we use these words interchangeably, and there seems to be no confusion nor miscommunication at all. So is there really a big difference between being thankful and being grateful? The definitions have a great deal of overlap, but the general difference is pretty simple.

Thankful means “pleased and relieved” or “expressing gratitude and relief.” Normally, thankful is used to express relief from a negative situation or when we are relieved that something unpleasant or dangerous didn’t happen, as in “We are thankful no one was hurt in the accident.” On the other hand, grateful means “feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness.” This is often used to express how we feel when someone is kind to us or does us a favor, as in “We are grateful for all the warm messages and help everyone has given.”

In places where English is spoken as a second language, the use of thankful instead of grateful is more common. One reason is the root word of thankful, which makes people believe that this is used to express thanks or gratitude. Which can be so, especially that being thankful and being grateful are both positive feelings and are triggered by some events. The difference between them is, by definition, gratefulness is directed outward the person who is feeling it, while thankfulness is generated inside the person.

For example, if someone asks you what you are grateful for in your life, then, what they really mean is what external circumstances you appreciate. This means that the feeling of gratefulness can only be generated by the outside world. So if you want to be grateful, you need something outside yourself, and you cannot generate this feeling on your own. For example: “I am very grateful for your help,” “I am very grateful you like me,” or “I am very grateful for this book I got.” Notice that being grateful always need someone else.

With thankful this is something different because it is a feeling you can generate on your own. The outer circumstances can still be the same, at the same time, the feeling is different. For example, My friend Finn bought me a cup of coffee at the start of our shift. Now let’s compare gratefulness and thankfulness in the following sentences:

I am grateful for the coffee you bought for me, Finn.
I am thankful Finn bought me coffee today.

In the first sentence, I express my gratitude toward Finn. At the same time, I am saying that I would not have been happy without him buying me coffee, so there is a feeling of helplessness underneath this feeling of gratitude. However, with the second sentence, I generate the feeling of gratitude myself. I could say this sentence even in his absence, just by reflecting on the experience where he showed me generosity. The gratitude is not directed toward Finn; instead, it is directed toward the experience I have had. But what if Finn had not bought me coffee and, instead, someone else had? Or maybe no one bought me coffee at all? Even then, I could experience a feeling of gratitude toward a certain experience, for example, I could say: “I am thankful Finn didn’t buy me coffee today so I can have time to myself while walking to the coffee shop.” Simply, we experience happiness and gratitude on our own without being dependent on others when we are thankful.

So if using these words interchangeably does not cause any miscommunication, is there really a need to be strict about which word to use? Not really, so long as you convey your message clearly. At the same time, knowing the difference between the words can make us more powerful in our communication and, especially, in the way you communicate with ourselves and how we express our gratitude. This is important because this will have an impact on how we feel, which ultimately determines the level of our success and happiness.

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