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Who Do You Give Thanks To, If Not God, For All the Blessings in Your Life?

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Thursday Nov 26, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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When I was a child, my mom would often remind me to say my prayers before going to bed. The prayer was fairly secular as far as prayers go, besides the fact, of course, that I was directing my prayer to a god. The prayer was a list of all the good things in my life for which I was thankful. This exercise reminded me of the good things in my life and helped me to understand the concepts of gratitude and appreciation. Today, as a secular humanist, I no longer hold beliefs in any gods, and, understandably, no longer pray to any gods. But prayer is far from the only way to express gratitude and appreciation.

Moving from a theist to a humanist, I have learned the difference between gratitude and appreciation. For many people, gratitude implies a state of thankfulness as a result of another person whereas appreciation is more about a situation. For example, you might be grateful for someone who helps you to find a job, and you might later appreciate the fact that you have that job. Reciprocation, or returning a favor, is a strong social motive that certainly has some evolutionary advantages for any social species. Gratitude is based on reciprocation and driven more by emotion than cognition. When we think about all that is good in our lives, we initially search for targets to satisfy the desire for reciprocation. Appreciation is based on recognition and driven more by cognition than emotion. As a humanist, I can appreciate the fact that I am alive without the need to identify an object of gratitude. Appreciating a situation usually involves an understanding that the "credit" is often shared among countless beings and factors. I am alive today because of my parents, their parents, their parent's parents, etc., as well as all the unique circumstances that led to my conception—including the bottle of wine my mother drank the night I was conceived. Although driven by cognition, appreciation can have just as much emotional impact as gratitude.

So who do I give thanks to, if not God, for all the blessings in my life? I hope it is clear now that the question presupposes that a "who" deserves the credit, whereas I extend that to include a "what." "Giving thanks" is not the same as appreciation as it implies that there exists and object of gratitude. And the word "blessings" has a strong religious connotation implying gifts from the gods, whereas I prefer to appreciate the good in my life. So allow me to reword the question: How do you show appreciation for all the good things in your life? Here are three ways.

Thank people. If someone does something kind for you, thank them. Make sure you let them know that you appreciate what they did for you. A few kind words of appreciation can go a long way. If you undergo surgery, thank the doctor and the nurses who kept you alive. If you get you dream job, thank the person who hired you as well as the people who supported you along the way. If your car breaks down and your cell phone is dead, thank the person who stopped to help you.
Return the favor. A sincere "thank you" is wonderful and often sufficient, but why not take it one step further and show your appreciation by doing something kind in turn for those who do something kind for you? Keep track of the kind things people do for you and when the time comes, you will find a way to do something kind for them in return.
Pay it forward. Very often, you will be the recipient of an act of kindness by a stranger or a group of anonymous people that you could not possibly or realistically thank. For example, you might donate blood as a way of "giving thanks" for the time your life was saved by someone else's blood. If you are the recipient of a charitable gift by many anonymous donors, show your appreciation by doing volunteer work for the community. If you happen to be born to well-to-do parents, in a nice neighborhood, in a privileged country, then do something kind for those who were not born with those advantages.
If you do believe in a god and you believe that your god deserves at least some of the credit for all that is good in your life, then keep praying. As a social scientist, I understand the benefits of this kind of prayer when it comes to well-being and character development. I would just hope that you give credit to the humans that unquestionably deserve credit in addition to crediting your god. If you don't believe in any gods and miss the power of these kinds of gratitude prayers, then I encourage you to try an exercise called "Three Good Things" where each night you review three good things that happened that day. This exercise has measurable positive effects on one's well-being (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).

Whether we are religious or secular, we can all do more when it comes to being grateful and showing appreciation. Showing your appreciation and gratitude in ways that contribute to other people's well-being will also have a significant effect on your own well-being. At the risk of sounding corny and idealistic, this will make the world a better place.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.

Podcast Episode: Who Do You Give Thanks To, If Not God, For All the Blessings in Your Life?

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