People who perceived God as a frequent gift giver are more inclined to attribute positive events to God and experience gratitude towards God, according to new research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology. The findings highlight the role of these interconnected beliefs in shaping one’s perception of God as a source of blessings and their subsequent feelings of gratitude.
Gratitude is a common emotional response to positive life events, and it has been consistently linked to positive mental health and well-being in previous studies. While gratitude is often directed towards specific benefactors, such as people who have provided benefits, some individuals also attribute positive events to God and experience gratitude towards God.
“I am interested in the types of thought processes that lead people to feel grateful to others, including God,” said study author Julie J. Exline, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University.
“Having practical information about gratitude-related thoughts might help people to teach themselves to think about situations in ways that will enhance gratitude. I’m also interested in supernatural beliefs and experiences, including situations where people think that God is intervening in the world and in their own lives.”
The researchers used Qualtrics survey to survey 1,078 participants during Thanksgiving week in 2021. Participants were recruited through CloudResearch, a company that contracts with other companies for survey participant recruitment. The participants were asked to reflect on a recent positive life event and provide responses related to gratitude, divine attributions, supernatural operating rules, gift appraisals, and other factors.
The researchers observed that cognitive processes, such as divine attributions (e.g. believing that God played a role in causing or influencing the event), played significant roles in predicting gratitude towards God. Beliefs about God’s power and intentions in the situation were important factors influencing these attributions.
Participants who viewed God as someone who frequently gives gifts, both to themselves and others, were more likely to attribute the positive event to God and experience gratitude towards God. This perception of God as a gift giver was associated viewing God as having a greater scope of influence.
Participants who viewed God as a gift giver also felt closer to God, either through their religious engagement or personal experiences. This suggests that their belief in God’s gift-giving nature was reinforced by their emotional connection and intimacy with God.
Motivational factors were found to be influential as well. Participants who desired to see God as a cause of the event were more likely to attribute the event to God. Additionally, the belief that divine attribution would make the event more personally meaningful had an indirect effect on attributing the event to God through both cognitive and motivational pathways.
Regarding gift appraisals, participants wanted to attribute positive events to God when they believed that God intended to provide help, encouragement, love, comfort, or protection through the event. Seeing the positive event itself as a gift from God was a strong predictor of gratitude towards God, even when controlling for other variables such as divine attributions, belief in God, religiousness, and perceptions of God’s positive intent.
Furthermore, the study found that feeling loved, cherished, valued, and appreciated by God was an important factor in perceiving the event as a gift from God and experiencing gratitude towards God. Wanting to receive the gift and feeling capable of receiving it also predicted greater gratitude towards God, although the perception of the event as a divine gift was the most influential predictor.
“In terms of gratitude, many people relate to God as they would relate to another person: If they believe that God has done something kind for them, has positive intentions, and is even trying to give them a gift, they will feel more grateful,” Exline told PsyPost.
“People are more likely to feel this way if they not only believe that God exists, but if they think that God is very active in the world in people’s lives. People who think that God intervenes in the world often, with many people, and in many different ways will see it as more reasonable to see God as responsible for causing events in their lives–which might include giving them gifts.”
Finally, the study noted that a subset of participants spontaneously mentioned God as a target of gratitude without being prompted. These individuals tended to be religious and hold strong beliefs in a powerful, benevolent, and gift-giving God who intervenes in the world and their lives.
“I was somewhat surprised to see how many people thought of positive events in their lives as gifts from God,” Exline said.
The study had a few limitations. It was based on correlational data, so the findings show associations but not causation. The researchers suggest that future studies could include interventions or longitudinal data to further explore these connections.
“This was a self-report study,” Exline explained. “The study of gratitude to God is still very new. So this was really just a starting point! Experimental or longitudinal work would be great to have, as our data were cross-sectional (that is, gathered at just one point in time).”
The study, “Divine attributions, gift appraisals, and supernatural operating rules as predictors of gratitude to God“, was authored by Julie J. Exline and Joshua A. Wilt.