Gratitude and Depression: Can Gratefulness Make You Happy?

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If you’re familiar with positive psychology, you’ve heard of the connections between gratitude and depression. Some suggest that cultivating thankfulness and counting your blessings will relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Sure, taking stock of the positive things in your life is a great practice. Does practicing gratitude really help depression, though?

Looking at the relationship between gratitude and depression feels more consequential right now. It’s the season of thankfulness, after all, with Thanksgiving only a few weeks away. But COVID-19 is wreaking havoc around the world and impacts the physical and mental health of millions of people. Can finding things to be grateful for during a time like this make a difference?

What is the relationship between gratitude and depression? Will cultivating an attitude of gratitude make you happy? Can you treat depression with feelings of thankfulness?

What is Gratitude?

Managing symptoms of depression isn’t easy and there are plenty of opinions on how you can tackle it. You’ve probably read at least an article or two on the benefits of gratitude. Maybe you tried writing a few morning gratitude lists or keeping a thankfulness journal. Many people push the importance of feeling thankful when it comes to combating depression.

What exactly is gratitude, though? Practicing gratitude is a bit more than a simple “Thank you” for a favor. The word comes from Latin, the word gratia meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. Depending on the context, gratitude can be any one of those things. It’s a deep sense of thankfulness for the good that exists in a world that often feels dark.

People who adhere to positive psychology stress the importance of cultivating gratitude. They keep the journals, write the lists, and insist that a solution to some depression symptoms lies in those practices. There’s a deeper connection at play between gratitude and depression than researchers initially thought, though.

Research on Gratitude and Depression

Studies that look at the effects of gratitude aren’t entirely new. For many years, researchers supported the close relationship between gratitude and depression. Their results revealed the many positive impacts that feeling grateful had on both depression and general mental health. When practiced over time, feeling thankful seemed to act as an overall mood booster.

Researchers found that some of the positive effects of maintaining an attitude of gratitude included:

  • More life satisfaction
  • Feeling more optimistic
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Greater likelihood of helping others
  • More likely to engage in healthy activities
  • More willing to seek help for health concerns
  • Higher quality sleep

Some studies even claimed that finding gratefulness can reduce your levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Positive psychology latched onto these results and used them to support the practice of using gratitude to treat depression.

A new study released by Ohio State University at the start of the year, though, suggested that gratitude might not be as helpful as researchers initially thought. The analysis of 27 studies on gratitude examined whether it truly reduced symptoms of depression. It revealed that the impact of gratitude interventions on depression is more limited than past research suggested.

David Cregg, a doctoral student of psychology at Ohio State, and Jennifer Cheavens, an associate psychology professor, headed up the study. Cheavens explained, “Based on our results, telling people who are feeling depressed and anxious to be more grateful likely won’t result in the kind of reductions in depression and anxiety we would like to see.”

Feeling Grateful is Not a Cure-All

This new study showed that gratitude is not the cure for depression that some believe it to be. The studies they assessed showed many gratitude interventions, like writing a gratitude list, don’t offer much real relief from depression or anxiety.

Clinical depression is not that simple. It’s like when someone suggests that a person with depression “just cheer up.” It’s not a condition that someone can simply “get over” or escape using an “attitude of gratitude”. Depression is a complex mental illness that requires serious intervention from trained, licensed professionals. Writing in a gratitude journal isn’t enough to overcome the serious symptoms that depression causes.

Although there’s a connection between gratitude and depression, feeling grateful isn’t an effective cure for a clinical disorder. Depression affects a person’s overall outlook on life. It limits their ability to see the bigger picture. Trying to find things to be grateful for in the middle of a depressive episode can feel next to impossible.

In some cases, trying to treat depression with gratitude can even be dangerous. Severe depressive disorders lead some people to self-harm behaviors and thoughts of suicidal ideation. When a person’s condition reaches this point they need advanced, individualized depression treatment.

Gratitude Can Still Help

Although the practice of gratitude can’t cure depression, it doesn’t mean it can’t help. They can be a helpful tool when used as one part of a comprehensive treatment plan. A qualified counselor or therapist can guide patients through gratitude interventions in a mindful and helpful way.

Cregg explained, “It is good to be more grateful…It has intrinsic virtue and there’s evidence that people who have gratitude as a general trait have a lower incidence of mental health problems and better relationships.” Both researchers still stress the positive effects that come from cultivating gratitude.

Their study suggests that a simplistic view of using gratitude practices for depression treatment isn’t helpful. Bringing the practice of gratitude into a solution-oriented treatment program can help, though. Under the guidance of a therapist, there are some great ways to increase gratitude. Two common exercises that people use are journals and letters.

Gratitude Journals

Gratitude journals are exactly what they sound like: a place to log things that you’re grateful for. Some people write in their journal in the morning, picking three things they are thankful for to start their day off on the right foot. Others wait until the end of the day to write down their three things, picking from the events that took place that day. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a gratitude journal as long as it helps you develop an overall sense of thankfulness.

Gratitude Letters

Gratitude letters are another option for reaping the positive effects of a thankful approach to life. Write a thank you letter to a person who has done something for you lately or made a difference in your life. You can write to a friend to thank them for their friendship. You can also write to a parent, teacher, or another person who encourages you in your life.

Finding Help for Depression

You’re not alone if you’re struggling with feelings of depression; it’s been a difficult year for many people. You don’t have to manage or live with your symptoms on your own. Help is available for anyone who wants to overcome their depression.

Pasadena Villa provides residential and outpatient treatment for anyone battling depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness. We offer a variety of therapeutic approaches and treatment modalities to create a plan that works for you. From individual counseling to group therapy, life skill coaching to animal-assisted therapy, we have a program that can help you.

The pathway to freedom from mental illness starts with people who understand. Our compassionate, knowledgeable admissions team can answer any questions you might have. Reach out to us to learn more about the programs available and how you can get help with your mental illness today!

If you’re ready to start your recovery, we’re here to help.

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