Here’s an example that illustrates the difference between gratitude and appreciation…
It’s millions of years in the future. Humanity no longer exists. What remains is a universe of stars, space, and dust. Planets of every color, silently spinning, peacefully orbiting their sun, their moons keeping them company. A million unique sunrises happening across the galaxy at every moment. Asteroids silently traversing the void.
It’s challenging to feel gratitude for this scene. What is there to be grateful for? These things are happening without you. They’re just there.
But appreciating it is more feasible. The scale, the vastness, the variety, the colors, the endless energy of these systems against the backdrop of quiet nothingness.
Gratitude so easily becomes a transaction. Whether it turns into a feeling of indebtedness (“Thanks, I owe you…”), a way to preserve your self image (“glad I passed that test so I don’t feel like a doofus…”), or the hundred other ways it makes things about you. Appreciation helps remove the transactional framing.
Gratitude also brings with it a sense of preference. Being grateful for sunshine immediately contrasts it with the alternative of rain. Appreciation is more observational. You don’t need to change anything—you’re just looking.
The color of a sunrise, the steam rising from a cup of coffee, the sparkle of freshly fallen show. I’m not grateful for these things because they exist with or without me. They have nothing to do with me. They’re just there.
Gratitude: “Thank goodness it’s sunny out today so I can go to the beach.”
Appreciation: “Look how the sunshine reflects off of the lake. Notice how the sun feels warm on my skin.”
There’s also the time aspect: feeling continuous gratitude is impossible. Gratitude is like checking off a box. “Ah, right, handled that gratitude piece, glad I won’t feel like I took this moment for granted when it goes away.” Attempts at continuous gratitude are often the result of willpower (“I’m going to keep a gratitude journal…”, “Let’s all say something we’re thankful for…”). As soon as gratitude is extended over any period of time it naturally begins morphing into appreciation.
Gratitude has a lot of worth, but I think appreciation is under-defined and under-valued. It’s more durable, flexible, and long lasting. Most importantly, appreciation allows you to engage with the world more deeply while keeping your self out of it a bit.