Countless U.S. families will gather around their Thanksgiving dinners on Thursday and name specific things they are grateful for.
And while this isn’t a bad practice, an additional principle might elevate a person’s gratitude: expressing indebtedness.
A new Brigham Young University study found that those who express indebtedness — a recognition that the good things in their lives come from God and from other people — have higher levels of empathy and are more likely to offer love and service than those who express only gratitude.
The university reported that BYU doctoral graduate Jenae Nelson, who is now a postdoctoral research associate at both Baylor University and Harvard University, co-authored the new study with BYU psychology professors Sam Hardy and Dianne Tice.
She said gratitude is often secularized to focus on material things and can even become prideful, such as social media posts boasting about new cars, homes or other possessions.
Indebtedness, on the other hand, is “inherently social” because it is experienced between people. Someone might look outside and feel grateful for a sunset, Nelson said; but expressing gratitude to God for the sunset creates a feeling of transcendent indebtedness.
Nelson clarified the difference between indebtedness and transcendent indebtedness. The former can feel transactional, like a relationship that ends when one party pays back the other; but the latter is more akin to what children feel towards parents, she said. Children can’t pay their parents back for raising them, but they might pay that goodness forward by honoring their family name or by caring for their aging parents.
“Gratitude without indebtedness is really shallow,” Nelson said. However, “if you only feel indebtedness, but you don’t feel gratitude, it’s more likely to be that transactional indebtedness that you’re feeling. ... It’s the merging and the pairing of these two [gratitude and indebtedness] where we really see the benefits of gratitude come through.”
The study on gratitude and indebtedness
The monthlong study randomly assigned participants to one of three weekly exercises: creating gratitude lists, writing gratitude letters to someone they appreciate and expressing gratitude to God.
The results showed that those who expressed gratitude to God or to another person experienced higher levels of transcendent indebtedness — and those with the highest levels of transcendent indebtedness were more likely to make charitable donations after the study than those who only felt gratitude.
Additionally, those who only wrote gratitude lists showed suppressed levels of empathy and indebtedness during the study.
“I believe that God... made us to be grateful, but He made us to be grateful to Him and to [others],” Nelson said.
She pointed to scriptural examples of indebtedness, such as when Jesus Christ thanked Heavenly Father before feeding the multitude with only two fishes and five loaves of bread.
“He first gave an offering of thanks to God... and then the multiplier effect happened,” Nelson said. “And so I think that we’re seeing the true gospel principle of how important it is for us to be looking up to God for our blessings, and then we see... the bounty of God in our lives even more as we do that.”
Prayer can be an especially good resource for maintaining gratitude and indebtedness, Nelson said. And since prayer is an important part of covenant keeping, it’s built into Latter-day Saints’ worship practices.
“I think the most important takeaway... is this idea that if you really do want to be a more generous, giving, charitable individual, then you need to be developing gratitude within relationships, and that includes our relationship to God,” she said.
Previous gratitude research
This isn’t the first time Nelson has studied gratitude. In 2021, while a doctoral candidate at Brigham Young University, she participated in two bodies of research that first suggested the importance of indebtedness.
In one body of study, researchers examined the life circumstances of BYU students and how that related to gratitude. For example, if students were struggling to pay bills or pass classes, were they less grateful?
Students who expressed gratitude to God despite their challenges were able to maintain their gratitude, Nelson said at that time.
The second body of study 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.
Nelson recalled another interesting finding from her previous gratitude research: the tendency among nonreligious people to express gratitude towards nature, science or something else beyond themselves.
People of all different backgrounds, she said, are finding ways to express indebtedness and gratitude.
“I think [that] is really profound and speaks to... how much our gratitude is a part of our divine nature,” Nelson said.