Prayers and other expressions of gratitude may hold significant potential in making people feel less lonely, a small study by a B.C. priest suggests.
Last summer and fall, the Rev. Eric Partridge, rector at the Anglican Church of St. Andrew in Sidney, B.C., paired six research volunteers from the church’s pastoral care team with six senior parishioners. Team members measured both their own and the seniors’ levels of loneliness using an assessment system employed by loneliness researchers (the UCLA Loneliness Scale) as well as a “narrative” assessment based on conversation between the volunteers and seniors. Then they met six times over the next 14 weeks to perform gratitude practices together. When researchers and seniors were assessed again at the end of the 14 weeks, all of the seniors, and some of the researchers, showed reduced levels of loneliness. The study also assessed participants’ levels of gratitude before and after the 14 weeks, Partridge says, and found similar results.
“I was really expecting that the results would be somewhat mixed, because you had people who were in a huge variety of life circumstances,” he says. “I was absolutely stunned by the results.”
The seniors’ score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale—which gives a higher number for a lower degree of loneliness—increased an average of 17.5%, according to Partridge’s dissertation.
A followup survey seven months later, he says, found that most of the participants were still using at least one gratitude practice and most were still feeling less lonely. As of press time, Partridge was planning a more detailed followup for this fall.
Partridge says his team’s research shows a link—though not necessarily a causal one—between increased feelings of gratitude and reduced feelings of loneliness. And although, he adds, his study may not have produced results as conclusive as a project involving a much higher number of participants, he hopes it will contribute in its own way toward efforts to ease people’s loneliness.
“It’s a small enough sample that it doesn’t tell you anything other than, ‘This may be a really useful arrow in our quiver,’” he says. “It’s not the final magic pill, but what we’re looking for is one more thing we can do that’s helpful or may be helpful.”
Increasing concerns have been expressed about loneliness in recent years—in Canada and other countries, Partridge says—with chronic or long-term loneliness estimated to afflict up to 30% of people in some studies. According to some researchers, chronic loneliness could be as dangerous to human health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In January 2018, the U.K. government appointed a minister of loneliness to address the problem in that country.
Partridge did the study as part of his work for a doctor of ministry degree he completed last May at the University of Saskatchewan’s Lutheran Theological Seminary, and it forms the subject of his doctoral thesis. He says the idea for the study came to him while he reflected on interactions he had with parishioners. A number of people he visited at care homes and hospitals lamented that they were rarely visited any more, or they made similar observations suggestive of social isolation. Pointing out that a loved one or some other person had in fact visited them recently did not seem to shift their conviction of being lonely—suggesting that loneliness might be “more about perception than reality,” Partridge says.
Then another parishioner, who spent much of her day with other people, revealed to him that she nevertheless felt “achingly lonely.”
“I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s fascinating.’ Here’s a woman that you wouldn’t know during the daytime was struggling with loneliness,” he says. “It threw everything that I thought I knew about loneliness into a cocked hat.”
Many of us assume that a lonely person can be helped by being visited more often, or by getting out and seeing more people, Partridge says. But research suggests, he says, that the mere presence of other people has a limited effect on loneliness.
“We think of it as being really useful, and it is in its own way, but…the impact on chronic loneliness of a visit is something like 2.5 days,” he says. “It’s very helpful during that short period of time, but then it dissipates.”
Although there has been considerable research over the past 50 years on the mental health effects of gratitude practices, Partridge says, he could not find any research measuring the long-term effect of these practices on chronic loneliness. He decided to do such a study for his dissertation.
Partridge had his team lead the senior parishioners through a series of different gratitude practices each week for about two hours each time, beginning with a Scripture reading and prayer. These practices included journaling, reminiscing, forgiving oneself and others, and exploring different types of prayer.
Part of his team’s work, Partridge says, was helping participants learn how to actually feel gratitude. For example, they practiced paying attention to be present in the moment, on the assumption that it’s difficult to be grateful when one is caught up in resentment or regret about things done in the past or in worries about the future.
Studies suggest, he says, that gratitude, even for the smallest things, once learned can become a habit.
“It doesn’t matter if the thing you’re grateful for is a brand-new grandson, or that your shoelaces didn’t break—they’re both important, and your subconscious takes them in as gratitude,” he says. “The medical research is pretty clear, that if you go to a sustained gratitude practice…it creates new neural pathways—what they call superhighways in your brain—that actually light up differently, so that you will more likely default to a grateful response to a new stimulus.”
One exercise that participants seemed to find especially useful, his dissertation states, was use of a “feelings wheel”—a tool to help people fine-tune their ability to put words to their emotions.
“When I know my feelings I can pray to God about them,” one participant said with reference to the feelings wheel.
Research on gratitude has included study both of faith-based gratitude—toward God or some sort of higher power—as well as gratitude in a secular sense, a general attitude of thankfulness, he says.
But is it possible to be grateful without being grateful to someone or something? Partridge says it’s an interesting question.
“I have some family members who profess to be atheists and who are still very grateful for the way the world is, and when we talk about it, they say, ‘I’m grateful to the wider universe’,” he says. “Well, you can call God by whatever name you want—we don’t have any completely good name that captures all of what God is. So if you want to call him ‘the wider universe,’ I’m happy with that.”