Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914 (Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts - public domain)

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. Do something, then reap the reward.

To me, that's not what the true spirit of gratitude is about. And 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 quite 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.

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

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 (which was last week's theme) and the selflessness with which gratitude envelops us.

But that last phrase — "constantly collecting receipts" — perfectly illustrates how some people go about what they think is gratitude. I'm reminded of this quote:

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

When I first came across that quote, I considered it cynical. But in reflecting about the true nature of gratitude and its importance as a virtue, I realized there's so much truth in it.

If we lead our personal lives less by transactions and more by values, and our business lives less by transactions and more by strategy, we'll improve the world around us.

What you do and say, today and every day, is a reflection of who you are and it in turn 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