One November several years ago, I was enjoying a particularly beautiful day. The elements was unseasonably warm, and even though I suspected it was a result of global warming, I was still feeling extremely grateful for the break in the Minnesota cold.

Virtually everyone I encountered that day commented about the weather, but each time I expressed my enthusiasm and appreciation for that balmy day, I got a reaction that surprised me. Approximately 90 % of the people responded with comments like “Yeah, but it won’t last!” and “Oh, you simply wait – we’ll be paying with this!”

I was fascinated by these remarks, and when the warm front held, during the period of the next few days, I continued asking people the way they were enjoying the stretch of nice weather. Very few people expressed any appreciation for this; instead, I was treated to some large variety of dire predictions that had to do with “paying” later for each day’s loveliness.

I considered those responses a lot over the next few years, and I also started observing more and more instances where gratitude and appreciation were rejected and cynical observations or grim warnings were offered instead.

It struck me that individuals seemed almost afraid to express gratitude. It was as though they believed by expressing their appreciation, they'd draw the wrath of some jealous deity who might snatch away all they were gratefulfor. In some cases, I noticed that people only seemed in a position to enjoy their pleasure secretly, as if expressing their enjoyment openly might jinx them.

I realized that some people employed cynicism to subtly acknowledge their good fortune without drawing undue or dangerous attention to it, or perhaps to avoid appearing too attached to it. I noticed that others withheld their appreciation for a variety of reasons – as a way of manipulating the person who was giving them something, as a way of avoiding vulnerability or the feeling of “owing” someone something, as a means of avoiding loss of face or embarrassment should their fortunes occur to change.

All this made me think a lot about the ways we express ourselves and exactly how we do or do not give thanks in moments of satisfaction and happiness. It also led me to explore notions of gratitude and appreciation in greater depth.

Gratitude Definition

Looking in the dictionary, I discovered that the word gratitude is defined this way: “The state of being grateful: THANKFULNESS.” The phrase grateful, meanwhile, is “1. a) appreciative of benefits received, b) expressing gratitude; 2. a) affording pleasure or contentment: pleasing, b) pleasing by reason of comfort supplied or discomfort alleviated; syn. GRATEFUL, THANKFUL: feeling or expressing gratitude. GRATEFUL commonly pertains to a proper sense of favors received from one’s fellowmen; THANKFUL may affect a more generalized acknowledgement of what's vaguely felt to be providential.”

So gratitude – whether for providence or personal favors – is really a feeling, a feeling that is intended to be expressed.

Our expressions define us and are a large part of what makes us unique. This is correct in terms of personality, but also when it comes to our biology.

In the human body, as our cells are formed, each cell contains all the details necessary to become any cell. The only essential difference between a liver cell and a brain cell is how it expresses itself. In the same manner, human beings are all part of a larger collective body, and our individual expressions determine where we squeeze into the whole.

It is our nature to convey ourselves. But expression is important for another reason: It creates our experiences once we move through life.

Have you noticed that people who continually complain about life seem to have experiences worth complaining about? And that people who are optimistic and cheerful appear to find much to feel good about? This is because our feelings are “magnetic” – they literally draw experiences to all of us that mirror our expressions.

So why would we express – or fail to express – in a way that would reduce our pleasure and satisfaction? As children, the foremost and only power we have may be the power of resistance, and one approach we take to learn to resist is by withholding our approval or appreciation. I believe that many of us simply fail to outgrow this tendency and also to replace it with a more expansive and generous range of behaviors.

In tribal cultures, there's generally an initiation process for children becoming adolescents. Part of that initiation process typically involves moving the kid from the power of resistance and passivity towards the power of creation. In Western culture, of course, these initiations are absent, and the subsequent void allows many children to develop into adults who have never learned to maneuver past their withholding behaviors.

Withholding has, actually, become a standard, normal behavior in our culture. Yet withholding our gratitude and appreciation can have devastating results on our lives – especially on our relationships. Whenever a person does not feel appreciated, he or she cannot feel “seen” or “known.” Without appreciation, acts of kindness and compassion seem to go unnoticed, and incentives to become a better and bigger person are lost.

Faced having a chronic lack of appreciation from others, people naturally begin “conserving” their own energy. They also begin pulling away – perhaps like a strategy for making sure that others at least feel their absence. Withholding then turns into a tug of war with each person finding new ways to withhold their emotional energy from the other. This eventually leads to the magic of a relationship evaporating. Its fuel gets depleted – wasted in withholding and conflict – until there's nothing left to sustain it.

Growing Gratitude

At some point in your life (preferably sooner than later) it's imperative that you examine your beliefs about expression, as well as your own expressive tendencies. Would you see yourself as an open and communicative person or as a reserved and withholding one? Would you believe that keeping your feelings “near to your chest” gives you an advantage or keeps you safe? Do you believe that making your expressions smaller and quieter helps you conserve power and maintain control? If that's the case, you may want to reconsider and expand those beliefs.

Expression results in evolution. Without expression, your emotions – and you – cannot freely evolve. Without evolution, you are destined to repeat the same experiences over again, because unevolved feelings continually draw the same experiences to you until they are expressed.

One of the most powerful types of expression is gratitude. Appreciation is gratitude in action. Appreciation costs nothing to give, yet provides satisfaction to both giver and the receiver. It feeds and nurtures an important link in the intricate systems of community relationships. Unlike giving material goods, which may be used up rather quickly, when appreciation is offered, it can be replayed and enjoyed almost infinitely, developing a generosity of spirit within the recipient that may cause her or him to pass even more appreciation onto someone else. The more it is given away, the more capacity it has to increase its value.

Think from it this way: Your feelings are currency. In order to earn anything, they must be committed to others through expression. What sort of bank account do you have with your feelings? Are you currently investing in criticism, judgments and gossip? Or are you currently investing in optimism, appreciation and joy?

It is really a powerful choice to either withhold or invest ourselves in others. Withholding pays no dividends, does not add anything to the world’s evolution and creates a scarcity of resources within our lives. Conversely, investing in others by expressing our feelings of gratitude generates souped up that goes out in ever-growing circles of influence, thus creating an ever-larger supply of things to be grateful for.

While serving as the nation’s patent commissioner, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “He who receives a concept from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me.” The more we share of ourselves with one another, the more we communicate, inspire and improve our methods for being in a relationship. Giving, especially expressions of gratitude, doesn’t have to “cost us” anything.

If our expressions have gratitude, appreciation and happiness, our life starts to reflect those feelings in our interactions each day. We begin to produce new experiences that generate more of the same feelings, and together these experiences and feelings form a life-sustaining loop of wonder.

When we feed the world through our appreciation and gratitude, the world becomes a more wonderful, mysterious and magical place.

12 Tips to Express Gratitude

Need help learning to express your appreciation? Here are some ways you can practice:

  1. Waiting in a checkout line at the shop, notice the cashier's work. If it's efficient and quick, take a moment to say you noticed and that you appreciate his or her skills. Tell the manager what a great employee the store has.
  2. Develop a routine of leaving little notes for your spouse (or your children) letting them know how much you appreciated them cleaning the kitchen, or taking out the garbage or straightening the common space. Thoughtful expressions result in more inspired behavior.
  3. When tipping an exceptional waiter/waitress, also tell him or her personally how much you enjoyed the service.
  4. Tell individuals who pack your groceries exactly what a great job they did fitting everything to your bags.
  5. Tell parents how much you appreciate something they did for you as a child, something that you still remember today.
  6. Thank our planet for your daily meals.
  7. Express your appreciation for the weather.
  8. Daily, write down five stuff you feel grateful for. Monthly, see how many things you can find to feel grateful for right away.
  9. Look in the mirror and express your appreciation to yourself for something you did or given yourself recently.
  10. Imagine the way you would like to be appreciated and receive the appreciation of others. Visualize someone spontaneously telling you they are grateful for something you have done, or how happy they're just to have you around.
  11. Practice expressing unrestrained gratitude. Let your face light up and enter a grin. Reach out you as you say, “Hey, I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you/this/what just happened.” Or, “Wow, this is so great!” Just don't hold back, and don't let the moment pass unmarked.
  12. By letting your voice, hands, face and the body get into the act of appreciation, you'll expand the joy of the whole experience – for yourself, and whomever else is around you! And remember, you don't necessarily need to thank anyone in particular to express your gratitude. To show appreciation for a beautiful day, you might choose to just close your eyes and smile up in the big blue sky.

This article continues to be updated. It originally appeared as “Much Appreciated” in the Nov./Dec. 2002 issue of expertise Life magazine.