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.
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.
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