Sunday, April 7, 2013

Gratitude vs. Appreciation

One of the positive habits encouraged by various personal development trends is developing gratitude. This means being aware of all the things you have to be thankful about, and learning not to take them for granted. This is perhaps the opposite of the feeling of "entitlement" many people are said to have.

For a long time I agreed with this idea, but recently I have changed my mind and decided it needs a bit of refining. I would prefer to feel appreciation rather than gratitude. The difference might be subtle, but it seems important to me.

Giving thanks is part of social interaction. When someone does something or says something that is helpful or supportive in some way, it is polite to express gratitude. This is known as the principle of reciprocity. While the balance between what you receive and what you give in return is not always necessarily even, the idea is that if people do something for you, you should at least try to do something for them, even if it is just saying "thank you", smiling, or acknowledging their action in some way that shows you appreciated it.

However, when this idea is extended into having a general disposition of gratitude, this has some implications. Ideas like the Law of Attraction have encouraged people to ask the universe for what they want and to give thanks to the universe for what they have. This seems to me very similar to the idea of prayer, with the same sort of relationship between the individual and the divinity/universe. It seems to reduce the individual's agency into the ability to emote, expressing either a wish for something in the hope of obtaining it, or a positive attitude when this wish comes true.

My problem with this idea is that it diminishes the individual. Let's say I wish for success in my work, and I succeed. According to this sort of thinking, I succeeded because I wished for it and the universe granted my wish. The actual effort I put into my work is not relevant here, because it is the universe that can grant wishes. I have to thank not myself but the universe for the success, in which my own effort was less important than my emotional state.

This sort of thinking also has a more negative implication. When something bad happens, this is because the individual must have been wishing for something bad (perhaps unconsciously). This seems to me like blaming the victim. While positive thinking is important, and negative thinking can have negative effects, it seems to me to be going too far to say that any accidents or diseases or other tragedies are necessarily the result of the person's negative thinking.

I consider this belief system, like many others, to be over-simplistic. It tries to propose one explanation for everything that happens. Whatever happens in your life is what you want to happen. It doesn't accept that there can be random events, coincidences, and that external circumstances can sometimes be more powerful than the individual's desires.

At the same time, I knew it was important to me to feel a positive feeling about things I have in my life, and not to take them for granted. So I decided to change the description of this emotional state from "gratitude" to "appreciation".

By appreciation I mean valuing something positively and not taking it for granted. I have an awareness of how the things I have were achieved. In some cases, it is appropriate to feel gratitude towards people who helped me, such as parents, teachers, friends, and sources of inspiration. In some cases I can feel pleased in my own achievements and development. But I do not feel the need to thank an abstraction like the universe. Things happen in the universe, but not through a higher power. I consider things to happen through human agency and also through random chance.

It is important to feel appreciation for my own efforts and development, and not to consider them irrelevant, with all my success being the gift of the universe. It is also important to know that negative things can happen and this does not mean I should blame myself for bringing them upon myself.

I go through life with a disposition of appreciation of all the good things in my life, and with the awareness that they should not be taken for granted.

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