Gratitude isn't just about listing things you're thankful for; a BYU study suggests expressing thanks to others and to God enhances empathy and indebtedness, fostering a spirit of giving and love.
Before indulging in the Thanksgiving feast this week, your loved ones might prompt you to say something you’re grateful for. While it’s common to appreciate material things, a recent study by BYU researchers suggests that expressing gratitude to others and to God significantly enhances the spirit of thankfulness.
“Our research shows that when you express gratitude to other people in your life, and ultimately to God, you have higher levels of empathy and indebtedness and are more likely to offer love and service to those around you,” said Jenae Nelson, a BYU Ph.D. graduate who co-authored the study. “Beyond listing things that you’re grateful for, we’re learning that gratitude is more complete when you think of people in your life that you’re grateful for.”
Nelson, who is currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Baylor University and Harvard, teamed up with BYU psychology professors Sam Hardy and Dianne Tice to conduct an experiment assigning participants randomly to one of three conditions: creating a list of things they’re grateful for, writing a letter to someone they appreciate or expressing gratitude to God for His actions in their lives. The participants did this exercise weekly for a month.
The study found that individuals who expressed gratitude to another person or to God reported higher levels of empathy and transcendent indebtedness — recognizing that good things in their lives came from people and from God. Participants with the highest levels of empathy and indebtedness were more likely to donate to a charity after the experiment than those who just felt gratitude. Interestingly, participants who only wrote a list of things they were grateful for showed suppressed levels of empathy and indebtedness during the duration of the experiment.
The researchers said that making gratitude lists isn’t a bad practice but that channeling gratitude toward people and to deity is more meaningful and can help build stronger relationships.
“If you’re ending your gratitude practice without recognizing the people you’re grateful for, then you’re missing out on the magic of gratitude,” said Nelson. “We now know that gratitude builds and strengthens relationships by working in harmony with indebtedness and empathy, which cause us to turn outward. When we focus on material things, we tend to look inward. But the minute you switch to acknowledging the people around you and recognizing the things God has done for you, you unlock the benefits of gratitude by activating empathy and indebtedness, which orient you toward helping others.”
Nelson said recognizing God’s hand is particularly impactful. In the experiment, participants who were assigned to write about God’s involvement in their lives reported the highest levels of joy among all participants.
So, if you want to have a more meaningful experience this Thanksgiving before anyone takes a bite of a heap of mashed potatoes, start by recognizing what others and God have done for you and your family.
“Remembering who you are grateful to is better than remembering what you are grateful for,” said Tice.