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Gratitude Redefined: Moving Beyond Thanksgiving Lists

November is the season of Thanksgiving, but there may be a better way to practice gratitude than merely listing off things around the dinner table.

Now, students, faculty, and staff in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences can express their gratitude for one another by submitting a note of thanks online. These notes can range from thanking a professor or staff member for helping facilitate an experiential learning opportunity or simply sharing a smile at the right moment.
Taking the time to express gratitude for others is also a great way to cultivate a more grateful mindset.

In a recent study, BYU grad Jenae Nelson (BS ‘18, PhD ‘22), working as a postdoctoral research associate at Baylor University and Harvard, teamed up with BYU psychology professors Sam Hardy and Dianne Rice and found that simply listing off things to be grateful for is not as effective as being thankful to people. Showing gratitude to and for others can be done by writing letters, sending a text message, talking to someone over the phone or face-to-face, or by saying a prayer of thanks to God.

Nelson became interested in studying the ideas of gratitude and indebtedness while investigating predictors of conversion. Searching the scriptures, she found evidence in Luke 7 and in King Benjamin’s sermons that feeling grateful prepared individuals for conversion. 

“For this reason,” Nelson says, “I began to think that indebtedness to God might be an important psychological principle.”

Nelson’s research found that those who wrote letters of gratitude showed higher levels of empathy and higher levels of transcendent gratitude — the desire to “pay it forward” in the future. Those who felt this transcendent gratitude were much more generous in donating to charities and those in need.

“However, it’s important to note that this effect was not found for those that experience transactional indebtedness, or an obligation to repay,” says Nelson. A transactional form of gratitude can lead to tension within relationships, while transcendent gratitude builds trust and love.

There was also a discrepancy found between those who only listed what they’re thankful for versus those who communicated their gratitude to and for others.

Surprisingly, those who wrote only lists of gratitude had suppressed levels of empathy.

Nelson noted, “It turns out if you are only focusing on material things in your gratitude practices, and not thinking about gratitude to people, you are going to experience less empathy and indebtedness. And we know that positive indebtedness predicts less entitlement and more overall well-being.”

She adds, “writing gratitude lists helps you to recognize the good things in your life but if you never stop to look where or from whom those good things come, you are not really becoming a grateful person.”

When all is said and done, Nelson hopes everyone remembers, “Being grateful for things is not as rewarding as being grateful for people.”

Practice writing notes of gratitude by submitting your thanks to someone in the college. They’ll receive your letter along with a note of appreciation from Dean Laura Padilla-Walker.