How to Avoid Mindless Gratitude

Shifting to mindful gratitude can improve your relationships.

Posted Nov 27, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

 VIA Institute/Deposit Photos
Source: VIA Institute/Deposit Photos
  • “OK, thanks for your help,” you say to the contractor who repaired your sink.
  • “Thanks for dinner,” you say to your spouse who spent all day making dinner from scratch.
  • “Thanks!” you say at the end of your e-mail telling a co-worker an action to take.

These are socially appropriate responses. And, they meet the bare minimum of expressing gratitude. They are certainly better than nothing.

But, are they also mindless? Mindless gratitude is done out of routine or habit, a social convention. There is typically no meaning behind it. It's a "thank you" said mostly outside our awareness.

Mindful gratitude means to not take things for granted. To see the kind act or the thoughtful gesture and to acknowledge it.  Mindful gratitude is relationship building. It deepens our connections. An example from a colleague of mine whose friend helped her move went like this:

“I want to say, Becky, that I really appreciated your helping me move yesterday. I was really in a bind with the moving company bailing out and without hesitation, you stepped up. You freely gave five hours of your time and did something that’s not at all fun! I’m really grateful to you. You are such a good friend to me.”

While mindful gratitude helps us build connections, mindless gratitude keeps everything at the status quo. Even worse, the omission of gratitude is sometimes akin to slapping someone in the face. 

Do You Receive Gratitude Well?

What about the other side of gratitude—the receipt? Do you receive gratitude well? We need more research on this understudied topic, but my guess is most of us do not.

The mindlessness of gratitude is often a two-way street. On the one side, we can offer a flurry of passive “thank yous” while on the other side we can almost entirely ignore gratitude shared with us. Think of someone who went out of their way to thank you for something. How did you respond? Did you soak it in, look them in the eyes, acknowledge them, and really feel their gratitude and appreciation?

There have been many occasions when I have offered thought-out, heartfelt gratitude to someone—a coworker or a family member—and the gratitude is completely blown off. It’s as if the receiver barely heard me speak. The receiver of the gratitude may say, “It’s OK” or “sure” or they may smile, but the telltale sign is the quick change of subject. Interestingly, I’ve seen this happen over and over with some of the most socially intelligent people I know. (I’ll add that I’m sure I’m as guilty as they are at poorly receiving gratitude!)

What’s going on? Is the person being humble? Do they not know what to say? Maybe. I also believe there’s a discomfort people have in receiving gratitude – in some cases, it might be “too emotional” for them to take in the heartfelt comments. In other cases, the kind person wants to keep giving their kindness or love and is not interested in receiving it in return. In some ways, this is magnanimous, but at the same time, it misses an opportunity to build a relationship. Receiving gratitude—conveying that you acknowledge and are accepting of the gratitude—is a connector. It causes the other person to feel heard. This is important because in some cases the person has challenged themselves and “put it all out there."

What I have found is that it’s often the kindest, most grateful, and most loving people who struggle the most in “receiving” gratitude in return.

So, what’s the remedy here?

  1. Keep up the mindful gratitude expressions, despite how others respond.
  2. Point out when people do not receive your mindful gratitude. For example, “Karen, I just want to make sure you heard what I was saying about how grateful I am to you for what you did. It seemed like you didn’t hear it and I just want to make sure because your actions had a positive impact on me. Thank you again.”
  3. Learn more about gratitude.
  4. For insights and practices on gratitude and the other 23 core strengths in all of us, get the leading strengths book.