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In the scriptures, the Lord makes it quite clear how He feels about giving thanks. He says “He who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious” (Doctrine and Covenants 78:19), and “Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things” (D&C 59:7). In fact, he tells us, “in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (D&C 59:21).
A long life of gospel living has taught me that the Lord’s commandments are always given for our sakes, not for his. But we usually think of thankfulness as something we give to others, so they know they’re appreciated. So why are we commanded to give thanks to God? I’m sure he’s not sitting around Heaven griping about not being appreciated (the way I do every Mother’s Day!). So, I looked at the research into gratitude and thankfulness to learn what, if anything, we get out of being grateful.
More than 125 peer-reviewed studies later, I’ve discovered that gratitude comes with incomparable blessings. We get more benefit from feeling and expressing gratitude than we can imagine.
Gratitude makes people happier
Research is overwhelming that gratitude makes people happier. Some people are more thankful than others, whether by nature or habit, and research has shown that those people in general are happier, more hopeful, and less materialistic than their peers who are less grateful.
But gratitude is also something you can learn. In one study, subjects were randomly divided into two groups. One group would keep a journal every day describing three problems they had faced that day, and the other would describe three things they were grateful for. At the end of two weeks the gratitude group was significantly happier than the problems group. Other similar studies have found the same correlation between gratitude and happiness in varying groups, including therapy patients and the elderly, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here,
Another study had people write a specific, heartfelt letter of gratitude to someone who had helped them. People who wrote these letters were happier, a week later, than a group that had written about their deepest feelings. More important, the gratitude writers were still happier three months later, and by a larger margin. (More here.) In fact, gratitude interventions like these are shown to have increasing effects over time. It seems to be that when we focus on what we are thankful for, we not only feel better in the moment but also train our brains to notice more things to be thankful for.
Gratitude creates an upward spiral of happiness.
Gratitude strengthens relationship bonds
Gratitude has overwhelmingly been shown to improve people’s relationships. Researchers have found that feeling and/or expressing gratitude helps keep relationship bonds strong in romantic and marriage relationships, here, here, here, here, and here. This is true even when the marriage faces severe stressors, like financial insecurity or emotional attachment problems.
Gratitude also helps initiate social relationships, providing a safe foundation to a friendship. And for existing relationships, expressing gratitude improves feelings of closeness and connection and makes us feel more supported. It increases interpersonal trust and makes it easier to forgive. Gratitude is also antithetical to violence and aggression; gratitude interventions have been shown to reduce both.
Moreover, feeling gratitude makes us feel more like doing things to help others. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Researchers call this “prosocial” behavior and it covers everything from doing favors to offering praise and appreciation to cooperating on tasks at work.
Thankfulness is also contagious; we often respond with prosocial actions just from seeing someone else feel gratitude. When we are grateful we unconsciously adopt other people’s goals (but not when we are joyful). And one spouse’s gratitude can improve the other spouse’s depression. Gratitude is fundamentally a social emotion; it sends its tendrils out to every aspect of our lives to bind us closer together.
The most amazing part is that when we feel gratitude, we feel closer to others and are more inclined to help them. Then they have a chance to feel gratitude, which makes them feel closer and more connected to us and others in their circle, and inclines them to do nice things for others as well. It is another upward spiral of increasing kindness, and an indication that gratitude is a key facilitator of human social flourishing.
Gratitude protects against Depression and Trauma
It’s not just about feeling better; gratitude can also protect us from the consequences of trials and traumatic experiences. Adolescents who are more grateful are also markedly less likely to ideate about suicide, even when they experience bullying. In fact, gratitude protects against suicide ideation in general. And research has repeatedly shown that feeling gratitude, whether through a writing intervention or as a general trait, protects people from developing depression even when they are chronically ill. See also here, here, here, here, here, and here. In some cases, gratitude writing exercises can improve depressive symptoms and wellbeing in psychotherapy patients who are already struggling with mental health.
Feelings of thankfulness also protect against PTSD and other trauma symptoms for war veterans and victims of school shootings, terrorism, and natural disasters. There is brain imaging evidence that gratitude reduces hyperactivity in the insula, a brain region involved in post-traumatic stress responses. That would be consistent with PTSD and trauma findings, and also with experimental results that show that gratitude helps improve emotion regulation. It helps stop people’s emotions from “running away with them”, so to speak, which is a good thing when those emotions are negative ones.
And in areas where people are prone to physical and emotional stress, feelings of thankfulness help protect against burnout. This is especially important in health care professions, where burnout is high but need is great; a little bit of gratitude goes a long way toward keeping health care providers happy and engaged.
Gratitude improves everything
This is not just an American thing, either. Gratitude research has found consistent results among different ages and cultures, here, here, here, and here, in addition to many of the links above. And the effects of gratitude are completely distinct from the effects of personality traits— it’s not just for extraverts or the empathetic. Anyone can choose gratitude over entitlement.
Some aspects of gratitude research aren’t quite so well fleshed-out, but are still quite fascinating. For example, gratitude is implicated in job satisfaction and leadership performance, and has been shown to have a role in academic performance by increasing persistence. Gratitude seems to improve some aspects of recovery from heart attacks, and to have an effect on a person’s feelings of healthfulness, especially in the elderly (and here). It does not seem to affect health directly, except via increased self-care and other indirect effects of increased happiness. Gratitude doesn’t help addicts become sober, but it does help them stay that way. And in individual studies, gratitude has been shown to improve financial decision-making, improve voter turnout, reduce fear, improve sleep, motivate self-improvement (and here), reduce body dissatisfaction in women exposed to unrealistic ideals, and even protects vulnerable teens from engaging in high-risk behavior.
The thing about agency is, we don’t have to be grateful for anything. We can always tell ourselves that whatever kindness was done was owed to us; that whatever good things we enjoy, we deserve more of them; that whatever we may have gained from our struggles wasn’t worth it. We can always turn our focus away from what we do have toward the fact that others have more of it. We can choose ingratitude.
But if we decide to choose gratitude, in obedience to the commandments of God, we will immediately—and increasingly—feel the benefits in our lives. The blessings of thankfulness are abundant and self-reinforcing. And it is clear from all this research that expressing our gratitude to our Father will increase our feelings of closeness to Him. It will make it easier for us to do His will with a good attitude, and to have a more generous attitude toward His other flawed children. Our entire experience of mortality is happier and more meaningful when we approach it with thankfulness rather than entitlement. Just like all the commandments of God, thankfulness provides more to us than to its recipient.
And that is one more thing we have to be thankful for.