Here's the thing, though. Is it the prayer that makes people grateful, or is it just that people who are grateful are more likely to pray?
It's a classic problem, and the only way to really sort it out is to do an 'interventional' study. That's one in which you take a group of people, put half on one 'treatment' and the other half on another, and see what happens.
Studies like this are pretty rare in sociology, for practical reasons, but that's exactly what Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues from Florida State University have done.
They took a group of about 100 students, almost all women and all of them in a current romantic relationship, and put them in four different groups. The first two groups were asked to pray daily, and the second two were asked to do a task unrelated to prayer. Here's the details of the groups:
- Pray daily for the well-being of your partner
- Pray daily (with no specific instructions)
- Report daily on their activities for the day
- Think positive thoughts about their partner
Then they assessed all the participants for their level of gratitude. It seems (although the paper doesn't spell it out) that there weren't any statistically significant differences.
So they lumped together the two 'prayer' groups and the two other groups. That has the effect of increasing the statistical power.
Doing this comparison, they found a significant difference. Those students who were asked to pray daily did become more grateful.
This is a great study simply because it is interventional. What's more, they controlled for 'social desirability' - the tendency for some people to tell you what they think you want to hear. So it's good evidence of genuine cause and effect. But there are a few problems with it that need to be remembered.
Firstly, they excluded all the non-religious people - in other words all though who said they rarely or never prayed. That amounted to about 25% of potential participants. So this is a study of the effect of prayer in people who already see some benefit to it, but who just don't get around to it as often as they might.
Second, the effect is pretty small - about 1.6 units on a scale that stretches up to 42. The effect might be statistically significant, but that's not the same as saying it's important (Olivier Morin has written about this recently over on ICCI blog). Without the authors putting the results into context of other factors that affect gratitude, it's hard to judge.
And third, the after-the-fact lumping together of groups because they didn't see the result they expected is a little bit dodgy (although much worse goes on regularly, it has to be said).
But despite these caveats, this is a good study. However, it leaves open the question of why prayer should increase gratitude. Mike McCullough, at the University of Miami, put forward some potential reasons in a 2002 paper:
- Most religions promote gratitude as a desirable attribute, so people may link religiosity to expressions of gratitude.
- Religious people tend to believe in a creator god. So when something good happens (or is seen, like a sunset), they may be more likely to respond with feelings of gratitude.
- Lastly, religious people tend to attribute good events, but not bad ones, to the actions of a god. So that may enhance their feelings of gratitude.
To me, generalised gratitude seems like an odd concept. It seems to be tailor-made for the religious mindset. While I have plenty of things to feel glad about, I only have feelings of gratitude towards people.
Religious people are naturally going to extend those feelings towards their god. So I guess we should not be too surprised that making religious people think more about their god also increases their sense of gratitude!
Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Braithwaite, S., Graham, S., & Beach, S. (2009). Can prayer increase gratitude? Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1 (3), 139-149 DOI: 10.1037/a0016731
This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.