BYU research suggests how to have a deeper, richer gratitude this Thanksgiving

When families gather this Thanksgiving, they may go around the table and each say what they are thankful for — but rather than make a list of things, don’t forget to thank God. 

New Brigham Young University research suggests gratitude to God — and an indebtedness to Him — is far more meaningful and impactful than simply gratitude alone. In other words, counting your blessings without recognizing their source will not give you true happiness.

“We have de-emphasized the indebtedness and overemphasized the gratitude and they belong together,” explained Jenae Nelson, a doctoral candidate at Brigham Young University. Her two bodies of research with BYU professors Sam Hardy and Dianne Tice will soon be published.

They found that a sense of indebtedness to God made people more empathetic, more charitable and more happy.

“Gratitude becomes a virtue when it makes you want to become a better person and express your gratitude,” said Nelson. “If you are only grateful for things, there’s no one to express that gratitude to. But if you are grateful to God, you can express that in prayer, or in self-improvement, or by paying it forward.”

Nelson finds these teachings in King Benjamin’s sermon in the Book of Mormon and in the words of latter-day prophets and apostles.

In this scene from the Book of Mormon Videos, an actor portraying King Benjamin stands on a tower speaking to the Nephites in the Land of Zarahemla.
In this scene from the Book of Mormon Videos, an actor portraying King Benjamin stands on a tower speaking to the Nephites in the Land of Zarahemla. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Mosiah 2:20-21 reads: “I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another —

“I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another — I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.”

Heavenly Father gave His Only Begotten Son, and He did it for everyone, so all are eternally indebted to Him, said Nelson. “There is a humility there, and now we are talking about gifts that have nothing to do with your outside circumstances. Because of that, it makes you want to be a better person. You want to make good on the gift that He’s giving you.”

“We have de-emphasized the indebtedness and overemphasized the gratitude and they belong together.”

In the research involving BYU students, Nelson and Hardy examined their life circumstances at the time and how that was related to gratitude. Meaning, if they were going through hard things, were they less grateful. For example, whether their parents had divorced, or if they were failing their classes, or not able to pay their bills. And Nelson said the students that were grateful to God could still have bad, stressful situations and still have gratitude. 

“It helps you through the hard times. They had more positive well-being, they felt closer to God, and had more spirituality,” she said. “The gratitude to God piece is the constant. You can always be grateful for who He is, and what He has done for you. Those things will never change, even if everything around us does.”

It is what Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then a member of the First Presidency, taught in April 2014 general conference in his talk, “Grateful in Any Circumstances.

“True, it is important to frequently ‘count our blessings’ — and anyone who has tried this knows there are many — but I don’t believe the Lord expects us to be less thankful in times of trial than in times of abundance and ease. In fact, most of the scriptural references do not speak of gratitude for things but rather suggest an overall spirit or attitude of gratitude,” said Elder Uchtdorf.

The research Nelson did with Tice had a more nationally representative sample. It found that gratitude and indebtedness to God led to more empathy, more charitable giving and more pro-social behavior.

This is the kind of gratitude parents should teach their children, she explained. It’s not about showing off what one has or counting things. It’s about recognizing the source and paying it forward. Then individuals are changing themselves to be more like God.

Episode 58: The positive power of President Nelson’s #GiveThanks invitation one year later

Nelson pointed to the address given by Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 2020 general conference, called “Consider the Goodness and Greatness of God.” He outlined how all have received gifts from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ that they could not provide for themselves.

“Every time we use, benefit from, or even think of these gifts, we ought to consider the sacrifice, generosity and compassion of the givers. Reverence for the givers does more than just make us grateful. Reflecting on Their gifts can and should transform us,” said Elder Renlund.

Nelson hopes her research will help individuals and families recognize how they can have a deeper, richer gratitude. “Faith centered in Jesus Christ is the most powerful kind of faith. This is what we are finding with gratitude and indebtedness. Gratitude centered on Jesus Christ is the most powerful kind of gratitude,” she said.