Is gratitude transactional?

Earlier this year, we launched our new podcast entitled Let’s Talk Gratitude, these podcasts explore how sharing gratitude can positively transform both individual and community relationshipsHere is an excerpt from our second episode where Girma Bishaw chats to Clare Herriot about whether or not gratitude is transactional.


Q1. What is the difference between the word gratitude and the word thank you?


Thank you very much for this fantastic opportunity to talk about gratitude, which I’m very passionate about. I said gratitude is not transactional, and thank you is because we say thank you as a response to someone giving or doing something for us. So, we say thank you for the services that we received, for the gifts given to us; it is giving back for what we have received.


But gratitude is a bit deeper than that; it is proactive. It’s proactively looking for the good in others, in our own lives, in the activities we are engaged in, in our interactions with others, in nature, etc. Therefore, gratitude is actively acknowledging and noticing the good. When we recognise or notice the good, then our response could be verbal, saying thank you. Not only verbal, but it could also be motivational. You acknowledge the good, and that motivates you to do good for others or continue doing good. Or it could be that you notice the good in others and that changes your perspective of them, your opinion of them. As a result, the way you relate to them will change. So, gratitude is broader and more profound.


Q2. Would you say then that thank you is a response and gratitude is an attitude that leads to a response?


That’s right. It’s an expression of your acknowledgement of the good in others or situations. Gratitude is more of an inner disposition, and because it demands content, it makes you take time to reflect. Transformation happens at this stage, as you decide and engage in noticing and reflecting on the good. So, it is the way you view and interact with the world. Thank you is one way of expressing your gratitude, but gratitude is broader.


Q3. Why does it matter? 


Because, in my understanding, gratitude is a worldview, like the way we see and observe and interact with the world. That means everybody has a different worldview, the way we look at the world and understand the world, and the way we understand our role in the world and our interaction. That worldview determines how we treat each other, perceive others, and interact with other people. So, when gratitude is your worldview and when you decide to acknowledge the primacy of the good.


The primary place of the good in the world since a good God created the world. Your attitude and interaction with the world changes. You acknowledge and see the good first. That means, in your communication and interaction with others, your first address becomes the good, appreciating the good, and acknowledging the good. That doesn’t mean you ignore the wrongs, but you approach them differently. And because you start your conversation by acknowledging the good, you motivate others to engage with you in changing the wrongs. So, it matters because it helps our communication, it helps our relationship, it helps the way we deal with the world. It helps us glorify God in the world in how we treat His creation and interact with nature.


By being in the world, we have received a lot. Like in the Bible, Paul says, I always say this statement because it amazes me how he asked that question. He said,

“What is it that you have that you haven’t received?”


Q4. I know, but if that’s the case, then it must be transactional.


No. It is fundamentally aware that your life is blessed, and you have been gifted in various ways. For example, the people around you, the people who drive your train or your bus, are not doing it for your sake. Nonetheless, you are benefiting from them and depend on the contribution of others. When you think about ‘thank you, ‘ you might say, well, they are doing their job, why should I need to thank them. As such, you might not recognise the indirect contribution of others to your life while the quality of your life depends on them.


Gratitude informs us that you don’t wait for people directly to do something for you, but your stand in the world, your posture in the world, is that of gratitude since you acknowledge and are aware that you have been given everything. You are where you are today by the contribution of many people and the gift and grace of God. Therefore, that awareness and acknowledgement demand and create a gratitude attitude in us.


That gratitude attitude is not just saying thank you, but how we relate, interact, handle difficult situations, and see the world and create change. That contributes to our happiness and wellbeing. That contributes to the well-being of the community as well.


 Q5. Why don’t we see the primacy of the good?


So that’s a huge question, and I might not be able to answer exhaustively. But as Christians, there’s a biblical fact that we live in a fallen world, and we are a fallen humanity, human beings. And as such, our default position naturally is not to look for the good. Let’s say you have met 100 people a day, and out of the 100 people, 99 were good to you, and one was nasty. So you go back home with that nasty person on your mind. When you see or interact with other people, you notice their wrongs rather than the good in them. That’s our natural, default position, and that’s why the neurologists believe that 70% of our thoughts in a day are negative. That is negative thoughts about ourselves and others, and we are drawn to notice the wrongs around us easily.


I think it’s very much related to the fallen nature of humanity because initially when Adam and Eve started their life, they began by being surrounded by good. They were thinking good. There wasn’t any evil or wrong thinking about them, and the world was not evil at the time. And God is a good God, and he doesn’t think evil. But once the fall happened, they started to see the wrong, and human beings now needed to be intentional to notice the good.


It needed the effort to prioritise the good. The fall reversed something in the way humans think and relate. It caused the loss of the primacy of the good. And because of that, even whenever we see good, so often we’re cynical. We say, “Oh, it won’t last.” It’s like we anticipate the wrongs rather than expecting the good. So I think it’s a natural tendency that we have. That’s why, nowadays, it’s tough to have a proper conversation in a very constructive way, because the wrong thoughts about others occupy our mind, and we don’t have room to see the good in others because of that. We lost that ability to listen properly and understand the other person.


Q6. Have you been in a situation like that where the other person, it’s been difficult to have gratitude, so you’ve had to overcome that? 


It isn’t easy to think about gratitude in a time of conflict if my understanding of gratitude is transactional because there is nothing to thank the person for. So, exercising gratitude in a time of conflict doesn’t necessarily involve finding something to thank the person for. Instead, it is a choice to acknowledge the good. You choose to remember the good before you address the bad. It could even be just their humanity, the fact that they are created in the image of God. Recognising the good in a time of conflict elevates you above the situation. You will be able to deal with the situation without being under the negative consequence of the conflict.


And obviously, the reaction of being angry and emotional and being upset when somebody does something wrong to you is natural. So it’s not something that we should deny or bury inside. But I think what helps me in my journey in life is when I am not engaged with conversation when I’m in that kind of mood of being angry and resentful or emotionally high. So taking time to reflect would help unless this is a very instant situation.


You see, there’s a philosopher called Martin Heidegger. He’s a German philosopher, and he said that,


“Our thinking benefits from thanking.”


There is a connection between thinking thanking. When you are thankfully thinking, you appreciate what is around you. You also understand your limitation, your weakness, and that you’ll be able to see your need for others, which in return helps you know yourself.


When you understand yourself and your weaknesses and how God embraced you and other people also love you, you’ll be patient because you know others are weak as you. And you wouldn’t be surprised by their weakness because you understand that you are weak.


When you understand your potential to do evil and see other commit evil, although you don’t like it, you will have room for grace for them. Because you know that you have the same potential, it is by the grace of God that you are saved from committing those things that others have done. So you’ll be able to give grace to them and challenge it without being condemned.


This becomes possible when you choose to start from the positive rather than the negative. Condemnation doesn’t give any hope. That doesn’t help other people to be restored. So Jesus, when he sent the message to the seven churches through John, the churches were really in a bad situation, and he should have started by highlighting their wrongs. But he didn’t. He began by acknowledging the good they have. And that means Jesus is in the business of restoration, not condemnation. That little acknowledgement gives hope to churches recognising that not all is bad; there is hope for them to change.


Q 7. Does that mean when you approach a situation and you see the good in somebody, that the way you respond to that with an attitude of gratitude can actually disarm them and make the other person much more receptive to you and what you have to say?


Absolutely. That’s what I am trying to say because that’s precisely how God treated us. Despite our sinful nature, knowing our potential for evil, He embraced us and slowly started to show us the wrongs in our lives, which made us repent and turn away. So that’s why there’s no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. So there cannot be true repentance in the presence of condemnation.


If I confront you, you will get into survival mode. You either become defensive or give me lip service and run away from me, and you’ll never see me again. But if I start in a broader sense, acknowledging and talking about the good creating a room for you, that will help you see the wrongs you have committed. It makes room for you to encounter your wrongs, and that’s powerful in changing people.




Q8. What would you say is a starting point? What could we do today, small steps, so that we can begin to grow that muscle, that attitude of gratitude?


Thank you so much. I think the question is what do we want? Do we want people to feel bad? Do we want people to feel guilty? Do you want people to feel miserable? Obviously, when you’re angry, you want people to feel that, to be miserable because you want them to feel the pain that you’re feeling. That’s understandable, and there’s no judgment to that.


At the end of the day, you want transformation. You want relationships to change. You want results. You don’t want that person to commit what they have committed. You want their imagination to change. So you have to focus on the end result that you want to happen.


If the relationship matters to you, if you want the betterment of the relationship, if you want the community to change, then you have to put human psychology into consideration, and start with the positive, how that actually catalyzes and helps our conversation and helps people to create a space for people to encounter their own wrongdoing. And it creates an impetus, inner desire to change because to have seen that.


Really focusing on the end result is good.  “What is it that I want?”  And in terms of looking ahead, to get to the results we want to see, the good we want to see in our lives, in our family, in our community, I think acknowledging the good is the right starting point in order to have a constructive conversation about life.


Thank you so much, Girma, and I think it’s been really good to realise that yes, gratitude is not transactional. It’s so much more than that, and it begins with us. Begins with us starting to acknowledge the good around us, the primacy of the good around us. And in time, it will have a positive effect, not only on our wellness, but also on our relationships and in particular on relationships that have some conflict or difficulties that actually can have an effect on us, but also on the way how the interaction progresses.


Thank you, Girma. That was very insightful.


We will be delighted if you join us as we explore how sharing gratitude can positively transform both individual and community relationships.  You can subscribe to Let’s Talk Gratitude on Spotify.