The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Does belief in God enhance gratitude? Here’s what psychology suggests.

The Lima family, from left, Abraham, Maria, Deborah, Bella, Nehemias and Abraham Jr., sit down and pray before Thanksgiving dinner. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Placeholder while article actions load

Recent findings in positive psychology point to the enormous psychological and even physical benefits of gratitude. Giving thanks leads to increased energy, generosity, enthusiasm, sociability, health and resiliency in the face of stress. Gratitude is an empirically proven path to a longer, happier life.

But what exactly is gratitude? In his book “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” psychology professor Robert Emmons defines it as “a willingness to recognize (a) that one has been the beneficiary of someone’s kindness, (b) that the benefactor has intentionally provided a benefit, often incurring some personal cost and (c) that the benefit has value in the eyes of the beneficiary.” Gratitude, an inherently social trait, always involves a benefit, a benefactor and a beneficiary. Emmons further distinguishes different facets of a grateful disposition such as span, frequency, intensity and density.

Span refers to the number of things for which a person is grateful. Some people are grateful for just a few things; others have thankfulness for countless gifts including family, friends, work and possessions.

Frequency refers to how often a person is thankful. Does a person feel grateful once a year on Thanksgiving Day or many times in the course of each day?

[Want ‘sustained happiness’? Get religion, study suggests]

Intensity refers to the depth of feeling that someone experiences over a benefit received. For example, if someone gives us a gift but we believe malevolent motives are behind the giving, our gratitude intensity is dampened, if not extinguished.

Density refers to how many people we are grateful to for a particular good thing. Say a husband and wife have lunch at California Pizza Kitchen. The husband with low gratitude density might be grateful only to the waiter. The wife with high gratitude density is grateful to the waiter, the kitchen help, the cooks, the truckers who brought the food to the restaurant and the farmers who grew the food.

Does belief in God influence the span, frequency, intensity or density of gratitude?

If we believe in God, we have a greater span of things for which to be grateful. For example, our life is not a mere chance happening, but ultimately the result of a loving God’s providential care. Gratitude requires a benefactor who intentionally provides a benefit. Without God, our life is merely a chance accident of reproduction. Given faith, however, our existence is not a chance occurrence, but a divine blessing. Indeed, all the seemingly random good things in life can be seen as gifts from a loving God, for which thankfulness is appropriate.

Since believers have more for which to be grateful, they are also grateful more often. If every good thing in life is ultimately the result of the creation of a loving God, occasions of gratitude abound. In the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Flowers, sunsets, warm breezes become gifts of the Creator.

If we believe in a good God, our gratitude intensity is also enhanced. God’s benefits are truly gifts given out of love, not bribes meant ultimately to manipulate us. If God is already perfect in every respect, God’s blessings are entirely for the good of others. God is a perfectly altruistic First Giver who both models generosity and serves to increase the intensity of the believer’s gratitude.

Finally, belief in God increases gratitude density. A lovely meal in a restaurant can lead the believer to be grateful not only to the waiter, the cooks, the truckers, and the farmers, but also to God, who is the ultimate cause sustaining everything and everyone in existence. Behind each of our human benefactors we can also add a heavenly benefactor.

Of course, having faith does not necessarily make someone grateful. Perhaps for this reason, the Psalms are filled with injunctions to give thanks, such as, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). Likewise, the New Testament encourages acts of gratitude: “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18).

Can atheists be grateful? Of course. Some atheists are more grateful than some believers.

But the believer does have an advantage in becoming more grateful. For the believer, all the good things of life are ultimately blessings from God. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “All goods look better when they look like gifts.”

Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and is the author of “The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology” (Image, Penguin Random House 2015).

Want more stories about faith? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Judge orders Texas man to marry girlfriend and write down Bible verses

Civil rights and faith leaders find new ways to fight old battle

Skipping church? Facial recognition software could be tracking you