This Thanksgiving, as you consider who and what you are thankful for, new research says to focus on the who, rather than the what. Gratitude directed toward people and toward God unlocks gratitude’s “virtues,” including empathy and indebtedness that lead to loving and helping others.
That’s according to new research led by BYU researchers that finds focusing on the “who” from whom good things arrive — whether it’s a beautiful sunset you credit to a higher power or a book Uncle Bill gave you that changed your perspective — makes the spirit of thankfulness more powerful and yields greater benefits to the one feeling it.
“Beyond listing things that you are grateful for, we’re learning that gratitude is more complete when you think of people in your life to whom and for you feel grateful,” said Jenae Nelson, a BYU doctoral graduate who co-authored the study, which has not yet been published.
Researchers found that those who expressed gratitude to another person or to God exhibited higher levels of empathy and “transcendent indebtedness,” which means they saw that the good things in their lives came from others or from God.
And those who had the highest levels of empathy and indebtedness were more likely to donate to charity after the experiment than those who were simply grateful. In the experiment, in fact, those who just listed things they were grateful for, without attaching them to someone else or to a higher power, showed “suppressed” levels of empathy and indebtedness.
Nelson began the project with researchers at BYU and looped in Harvard and Baylor universities when she got a joint postdoctoral research appointment at those schools after graduation. She partnered with BYU psychology professors Sam Hardy and Dianne Tice for the research, which was completed after she graduated from BYU.
For the study, they had 1,176 participants do weekly gratitude journaling over the course of a month in spring of 2022. Some were assigned to list the things for which they were grateful, but not to include people for whom they were grateful — just “stuff,” Nelson said. Some were assigned to write a letter to someone who had given them something for which they were grateful — “like Mom who paid for my textbooks” — though the assignment didn’t include sending the letter to that person. And some were assigned to instead journal their gratitude to God or their own version of a higher power or spiritual connection.
People who claimed absolutely no belief in something spiritual were not included in the study, she said. But it was a national sample, not specific to any particular faith or belief system.
At the end of the study, they also gave the participants a chance to donate any percent they wanted of the fee they earned in the study to a children’s hospital or charity.
“Gratitude has been theorized to be a prosocial emotion and to make one more apt to give, more compassionate and empathetic and whatnot,” Nelson said. “But I had the suspicion that a gratitude list wasn’t really doing that; it was kind of a secularized way of doing gratitude.”
The study was designed to test whether listing your cool car and nice house and other items would produce the same amount of gratitude as relationships to people and a higher power. Nelson said making lists is good in many ways, including teaching kids they have a lot of good things in their lives for which to be grateful. But as suspected, folks who just listed things had less of a sense of empathy and indebtedness, compassion and generosity than those who focused on the providers of good things, she told Deseret News.
Those who recognized that others had given to them in different ways were more likely to give to others, to empathize and to be compassionate. “It pretty cleanly provided evidence for the social element of gratitude,” said Nelson.
Gratitude to God or a higher power amplified the effects, the researchers found. The highest level of the prosocial benefits of gratitude were seen among those assigned to write to their higher power. They also had the highest levels of “positive affect,” which includes joy, contentment and happiness, the researchers found.
In the study, the researchers said the complicated experimental design allowed them to show some causal effects, not just an association.
Reaping benefits from gratitude
“Our conclusion from this is that there are a lot of great ways to cultivate gratitude,” said Nelson. “But if you really want to cultivate what we would think of as the virtue of gratitude and want to become more grateful people who are more likely to pay it forward, to take other people’s perspectives and have more compassion, we need to be thinking about God. We need to be thinking about the people that we’re grateful for in our gratitude exercises.”
She added, “Just thinking about material things can actually cause us to look inward and suppress that perspective-taking. You’re losing the social effect and benefit of gratitude when you aren’t thinking about the people who have done things for you.”
Nelson noted that while thinking about something that someone specific provided is still materialistic, adding the human element of the person or God that provided it had an “amazing” impact.
Nelson said she suspects that if people sent their gratitude letters to the people from whom they received something meaningful, the effect would be even greater.
The study suggests that people need to pay attention to the human side of gratitude and their human connections. “We need now more than ever,” Nelson said.
In an earlier published study Nelson conducted, she said subjects came from all kinds of religious backgrounds, including not having any religious belief at all, but they all had gratitude to something, whether nature, science or God.
They looked around and thought, “‘Wow, you know, all the stuff I got came from somebody other than myself.’ It seems to be a really, really human kind of response to look around and say, ‘There’s something good out there that’s been blessing me or has been good to me.’”
That outward focus of gratitude enhances the impact.