THE BLOG
09/10/2014 07:35 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Attitudes of Gratitude: Religious Friends Cultivate Thankfulness

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People who are grateful often have lower blood pressure, less anxiety, better relationships, a greater willingness to help others and are more likely to see their lives as meaningful, among other benefits indicated in several studies.

But many people can be forgiven for finding it difficult to be thankful in a society filled with economic uncertainty, and where greater individualism can place a higher value on competition than community.

One possible solution: Keep your friends close, and your religious friends closer.

A national study of worshipers found that individuals who had more friends in their congregations were more likely to be grateful to God and ultimately report better health and fewer symptoms of depression.

A separate national study of women and men ages 17 to 24 came to a similar finding: Having religious friends positively predicted the extent to which young adults experience gratitude.

"Social support is what really does lead to gratitude," said sociologist Rachel Kraus of Ball State University, the lead researcher in the young adult study.

Fostering gratitude

There are many reasons religious networks can be expected to foster attitudes of gratitude.

Scriptures from several traditions encourage gratitude. The Psalmist declares, "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name." The Quran states, "If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor]."

And there is something special about gratitude to God. Researcher Neal Krause of the University of Michigan has noted belief in God as overseeing the world means God "is in a far better position than human beings to provide help in stressful times."

In the study on gratitude to God and health, researchers analyzing data from 833 participants in the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey found a pathway of associations beginning with greater attendance leading to gratitude to God and better-self-related health and fewer symptoms of depression.

The study findings indicated that people who attend worship services often are more likely to volunteer in their congregations. Individuals who volunteer are likelier to report more close friends in their religious communities. Those who have more friends report receiving more emotional support from church members, and receiving such support is one reason why people feel more grateful to God, reported researchers Krause, Deborah Bruce, R. David Hayward and Cynthia Woolever in the June 2014 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

"Finally ... feeling more grateful to God is associated with more favorable self-rated health and fewer symptoms of depression," the researchers said.

In a separate study based on data from the 2007-2008 wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion, researchers found that being "spiritual, but not religious" was unrelated to experiencing feelings of gratitude.

On their own, factors such as greater participation in organized religion and more private devotions were associated with higher levels of gratitude. But when all the variables were analyzed together, only experiencing answered prayers and having religious friends had significant effects on gratitude.

Researchers Kraus, Scott Desmond and Zachary Palmer reported their findings in a recent online article in the Journal of Religion and Health.

Building networks

Many people in the pews appear to be getting the message.

In the congregational life survey sample, 88 percent of worshipers strongly agreed with the statement, "I am grateful for all God has done for me."

More than four in five also said they have been richly blessed by God and strongly agreed, "If I were to make a list of all the things God has done for me, it would be a very long list."

One area where there appears to be room for improvement, however, is in meeting the needs of other congregants.

For example, more than six in 10 worshipers in the congregational life survey sample said, excluding clergy, other people in the congregation rarely or never talked with them about their private problems and concerns.

Another area that needs work is getting people through the sanctuary doors in the first place. That requires special outreach to young people, who are less likely to affiliate with organized religion and more likely to define themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

Still, it is not enough just to get people into church, analysts note.

It is also important to have people interact with one another in meaningful ways, Kraus noted. She said perhaps congregations would want to consider developing opportunities for developing relationships, such as prayer groups or activities for young adults.

More than just getting by, the research indicates many people can develop a positive outlook on life with a little help from their religious friends.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.