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Family Wealth: Thankfulness Vs. Gratefulness

Last year, one of my closest friends confided in me about how much he was spending on his son’s education, lifestyle, and medical expenses, including four years of out-of-state college tuition. My friend’s business had taken a downturn over the last few years, and he was only able to cover these expenses because of his earlier discipline, planning, and saving.

While not minimizing the importance and blessing of being able to provide for a child he loves, he lamented the significant financial and emotional costs he had endured and the impact on his long-term financial planning and economic condition. He looked forward to this chapter of his life ending!

After reflecting on our conversation, I asked him if he thought his son was grateful for this gift. Without hesitation, he answered that his son was very thankful. I expressed my belief that there is a big difference between a child being thankful and a child being grateful. A thankful child still recognizes and appreciates a parent’s funding of their education. They are thankful that they were raised in a home where the parents can afford this cost.

But the reality is that the child most likely expected his education to be paid for. He felt entitled to this gift, much like he would expect a home to sleep in, a car to drive, and clothes to wear. While the child may be truly thankful, his father’s financial sacrifice was not necessarily considered an extraordinary gift. (For related reading, see: How to Create a Plan to Deal With College Debt.)

The Depth of Being Grateful

Being grateful, however, goes much deeper and is much more profound. There is a depth and warmth to a person when they express gratitude. A person of gratitude grasps the reality that they deserve little or nothing, and they are overwhelmed when they receive anything. They don’t expect anything or have an entitlement attitude.

This type of person recognizes that the benefactor is doing what they do out of desire, not duty. When gratitude is present in an individual, it indicates a disposition to express much more than thankfulness and to accept gifts humbly with much grace and love.

I’ve done some research on the character trait of gratitude for quite some time. The word is derived from a Latin word meaning “pleasing to the mind.” The philosopher Cicero stated that, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of human virtues, but the parent of all others.” Hans Selye, the renowned endocrinologist and pioneer researcher on the impact of stress in our lives, stated that “gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions” and discovered that it is the one trait that is most nourishing to our health. (For related reading, see: 5 Financial Planning Decisions You Won't Regret.)

After working in the field of family wealth for more than 35 years now, I can strongly assert that gratitude is the most important character trait for families to encourage and convey to their children and grandchildren. It is the one trait that can change everything. When I do have the privilege of meeting grateful people, I find that they are always thinking about what is right in their lives and not what might be wrong. They simply don’t complain about others because they don’t have an expectation of what others can give them. Consequently, they live much fuller lives, knowing that life is always better than their modest expectations.

I’ve also read that gratitude is connected to the word “grace.” I can’t think of a better word to set the tone for the balance of the rest of the year. (For related reading, see: 6 Life Events That Call for Professional Financial Advice.)