12 Common Symbols of Gratitude (With Origins)

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Showing gratitude can have a meaningful impact not only on the life of the person you’re expressing gratitude toward but on your own life as well. Research in the area of positive psychology has indicated that a person’s baseline level of happiness tends to increase when they begin focusing on what they are already grateful for in life instead of waiting for life to deliver more pleasant experiences and things to be grateful for.

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Various figures throughout history have claimed that developing an “attitude of gratitude” is key to achieving greater happiness. Science is now beginning to confirm this is accurate.

There are many ways you can begin cultivating a more grateful perspective on life. For example, keeping a gratitude journal in which you regularly write about the various aspects of life for which you are grateful can help.

(Pro Tip: Our blog on the topic of future self journaling may also provide you with insights about how keeping a journal can give you a new perspective on yourself and your life.)

However, you won’t always have the time to write a journal entry. That doesn’t mean you can’t focus on what you are grateful for in these instances. A tattoo or piece of jewelry featuring a gratitude symbol can serve as a reminder to be grateful whenever you look at it. Gratitude symbols can also help you show your appreciation for others. This guide will list a few options to consider.

What Is the Universal Symbol of Gratitude?

Many consider the universal symbol of gratitude to be a spiral with three small dots along the bottom adjacent to where the spiral begins. Some believe the spiral element reflects early Celtic symbols, as spirals often played a role in Celtic iconography. Additionally, the symbol tends to feature a subtle hook shape at the bottom of the spiral. It’s possible this represents the makau, a symbol from Hawaiian cultures that is meant to offer safe passage to those traveling over water.

Some versions of the universal symbol of gratitude also feature an additional series of dots next to the spot where the spiral ends. It is also likely not a coincidence that the inner portion of the spiral resembles a lower-case G. This may represent the word “gratitude.”

Another interpretation of the way in which this symbol represents gratitude highlights the fact that a spiral suggests the idea of something being eternal. This symbol may imply that the gratitude a person feels continues forever.

Other Common Symbols of Gratitude

The universal symbol of gratitude is by no means the only gratitude symbol in existence. Whether you want to get a tattoo that symbolizes gratitude, you are looking for a charm for a piece of jewelry that reminds its wearer to be grateful, or you simply have a general interest in the topic, other gratitude symbols to be aware of include the following:

Various types of flowers

It’s not uncommon for cultures to associate certain types of flowers with certain feelings or ideas. In some instances, the same flower may represent multiple ideas depending on the culture of those perceiving it.

A number of flowers have come to symbolize gratitude and appreciation over the course of history. Examples include roses, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, and sweet peas.

There is no one origin for the association between gratitude and these particular flowers. Often, the connection is informal. People tend to give the flowers in this entry as gifts to show their appreciation to others because of their natural beauty. Over time, this has resulted in such flowers becoming common symbols of gratitude, even if there is no specific cultural tradition that lent them this meaning.

You may want to give someone a bouquet of any of these flowers as a way of saying thank you. If you do, just be sure to consider the other ways someone might interpret such a thank you gift. For example, while many do genuinely consider roses to be symbols of gratitude, it’s even more common for most people to associate them with romantic love. You don’t want to send the wrong signals!

(Pro Tip: For more information about how you can let someone know you appreciate them, check out our guide on ways to show gratitude.)

Bowing

A gratitude symbol does not need to be an image or object. It can take the form of an action.

Bowing as a sign of respect is primarily common in Asian nations and cultures. However, numerous cultures throughout history have also adopted bowing as a means of expressing appreciation.

Thanksgiving symbols

Certain iconic images conjure up thoughts of Thanksgiving in the United States. Common examples include turkeys and cornucopias. Thus, many also equate these symbols with expressions of gratitude.

Praying hands and bowed heads

Many Christians give thanks to God before a meal by clasping their hands together and bowing their heads in prayer. This image and action has therefore come to be a gratitude symbol for members of the Christian faith.

Bread & wine

This is another gratitude symbol with Christian origins. Technically, the bread and wine that are part of the Eucharist or Holy Communion sacrament or ordinance symbolize the body and blood of Christ that Christians believe he sacrificed in order to ensure their salvation.

That said, for some Christians, these symbols represent gratitude because they remind them to be grateful for this sacrifice. Receiving Communion is a way for Christians to remind themselves of their belief in the notion that Jesus Christ gave up his life so that they may be saved.

Hearts

A basic heart shape has long been a shorthand for expressing gratitude for people from various cultures and backgrounds. Its usage as a gratitude symbol may have even grown more common in recent years due to the increasing popularity of emojis. Those who frequently use emojis to express certain messages, ideas, or emotions in text messages often use heart emojis to say “thank you” in a way that perhaps conveys their feelings of gratitude more effectively than text alone can.

Hands placed on heart

This is another gratitude symbol that focuses on the heart. Unlike the above example, it’s an action instead of an image.

Some people spontaneously show gratitude to others by placing their hands over their hearts. This is a non-verbal way to say “thank you” in a moment of gratitude that is not specific to any one particular culture.

Standing

Standing is similar to bowing. It is an action that many use to show respect and humility across a range of cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, and more. It’s also sometimes a way to show gratitude toward someone. This is particularly true when a group of people stand in unison for someone they appreciate.

An example from pop culture can potentially illustrate how this simple action may represent gratitude. At the end of the film Dead Poets Society, when Robin Williams’s character leaves his classroom of students for the last time, the students wordlessly show their respect and gratitude for a teacher who changed their lives by standing atop their desks together (which might not be the safest idea! If you want to show someone gratitude, standing on flat and sturdy ground should suffice!).

Medals

Medals and similar awards are often symbols of gratitude in many contexts. For example, militaries across the world often use Purple Hearts and other such medals to thank those who put their lives at risk in service of their nation.

Outside of the military, in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom “is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Those are just a few common examples. Although some medals, such as Olympic medals, serve to recognize a person for their achievements, historically, various medals have also served to thank individuals for their contributions to others.

Statues & similar fixtures

Some gratitude symbols consist of public structures that remind others to be grateful for the sacrifices individuals or groups have made.

Sometimes these structures or fixtures are very literal in their meaning. An example would be a statue of someone who funded a university, hospital, or other such institution. This type of statue would usually be on the property of the relevant institution and might feature a plaque with text describing why the institution as a whole should be grateful for the support the subject of the statue provided.

Other such fixtures can be more symbolic. Consider the example of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This structure primarily consists of a black granite wall featuring engravings of the names of the US service members who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. It serves as both a reminder of their passing and a way of thanking them for making the ultimate sacrifice.

Of course, gratitude symbols such as these can’t take the form of tattoos, pieces of jewelry, or other such small items that you might carry with you as reminders to be grateful throughout your day. Instead, they demonstrate how entire societies and institutions have embraced various symbols of gratitude to celebrate those among them who have made significant contributions. This suggests that expressing gratitude can be a communal act just as it can be a personal and private one.

Various crystals

Just as certain flowers have associations with gratitude for some people, those who believe in the healing powers of crystals also believe some of them represent gratitude and appreciation. Examples of such crystals include emerald, seraphinite, rose quartz, and kyanite. Consider adding these to a Thanksgiving display or a gratitude jar. Others also hold these crystals in their hands when praying or expressing gratitude to the universe.

Belief in the idea that crystals have healing powers generally stems from New Age spirituality and similar movements. This is another example of a gratitude symbol not necessarily having roots in one specific culture or tradition.

Symbols of Gratitude: Saying Thanks Without Saying Anything

Gratitude can be a very strong feeling. Sometimes, words alone are not enough to help us express how grateful we may be. In those instances, these symbols of gratitude can help us express what we may be unable to communicate in words.


Sources:
  1. Coughlin, Sara. “4 Crystals That Will Be Right At Home In Your Thanksgiving Centerpiece.” Refinery 29, VICE Media Group, 7 November 2018, Refinery29.com.
  2. “Official Symbol of Gratitude.” Gratitude Gifted, Gratitude Gifted, 10 May 2021, Gratitudegifted.com.
  3. “The Presidential Medal of Freedom.” The Obama White House, Obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.
  4. “You’ve Seen the Makau, but Do You Know Its Cultural Significance?” The Inertia, The Inertia, 4 March 2020, Theinertia.com.
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