Gratitude is one of the best ways to combat depression, and to improve every area of your life.
When we are feeling depressed, we are mired in negativity. If people tell us to just “think positive thoughts,” we might want to throttle them–if only we had the energy, right?
Instead, we think negative thoughts about the person who told us to think positive thoughts 🙂
Sometimes, trying to think positive thoughts when we’re depressed feels like slathering frosting over a pile of mud. We know deep down that we’re just covering up the depression–not changing it or dealing with it.
First, I want you to know that it’s o.k. to be depressed. Everyone deals with situational and/or clinical depression at some point in their life. It’s a completely normal mental health challenge. But it’s never fun.
Today, instead of telling you to be positive, I’m going to suggest you be grateful.
You might wonder, “What’s the difference?”
Often, being positive can turn into being false about our situation. It’s a tricky thing, because there’s such a thing as “toxic positivity,” which is pretending that problems don’t exist. When positivity is insincere, forced, or makes it seem like your feelings of depression aren’t legitimate–that’s when it’s a problem.
It can actually be an avoidance tactic, and when used to suppress your authentic feelings, can lead to more psychological distress.
Gratitude, on the other hand, is accepting your current situation, but noticing that there might be some good things in your life as well.
Being grateful does not mean you cover up or deny your feelings of depression. It just means you allow the possibility that not everything is horrible.
How Does Gratitude Affect Depression?
Research has shown that being grateful can help people be less depressed, when used with other strategies. In other words, this one thing (being grateful) will not cure depression (or anxiety), but it can definitely help, AND have a huge impact on other areas of your life.
If you want to try using gratitude to help combat depression, I suggest you just look for small, simple things to be grateful for. The bird outside your window. The fact that you have hot water, so that if you actually wanted to take a shower, you could. Your comfortable bed.
You’re not saying, “I’m happy! I’m full of life! I’m excited for my future!”
You’re just saying, “I’m grateful Netflix exists. I’m grateful I have pajamas. I’m grateful for chocolate.”
See the difference?
Why Expressing Gratitude is Important
Studies have shown that thinking grateful thoughts and writing grateful thoughts are important. But to get the greatest reduction in depressive symptoms, expressing gratitude is the key.
This means that you share what you’re grateful for with other people. If you don’t feel like verbally talking to anyone, you have the opportunity to share on social media. (Just be very careful with social media, as it can fuel feelings of depression. I suggest you just hop on, share what you’re grateful for, and hop back off. No scrolling!)
Even better, enlist a “gratitude buddy.” Find a friend who will agree to also start a daily practice of being grateful, and text each other what you’re grateful for that day.
Saying “thanks” or “thank you” is also a form of gratitude. Try saying it more often!
What Happens When You Practice Gratitude?
Robert Emmons, PhD, the lab director of the Emmons Lab at the University of California in Davis, who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, has discovered the following positive effects of gratitude:
- Allows us to be more present
- Helps overcome feelings like envy and regret
- Increases resilience against stress
- Increases our sense of self worth
- Reduces feelings of loneliness
- Fights symptoms of physical illness
- Aids in coping with trauma
In Dr. Emmons’ studies, he also found that those who practice gratitude:
- Exercised more
- Felt more optimistic about the future
- Felt better physically
- Were more successful working toward their goals
- Were more likely to offer emotional support to others
Why is Gratitude So Powerful?
More than 50 studies on gratitude have shown that gratitude has effects on practically EVERY area of our lives. This is precisely why it is so powerful–because of its far-reaching effects.
The studies found that gratitude improves your life in the following areas:
- More relaxed
- More resilient
- Less envious
- Happier memories
- Healthier marriage
- More friendships
- Deeper relationships
- Better management
- Improved networking
- Increased goal achievement
- Improved decision-making
- Increased productivity
- Improved sleep
- Less illness
- Longer life
- More exercise
- Increased energy
- Less materialistic
- Less self-centered
- More optimistic
- Increase self esteem
- More spiritual
What Hormone Does Gratitude Release?
Here are just a few of the many effects of Dopamine:
- Triggers positive emotions
- Helps us feel optimistic
- Helps increase our intrinsic motivation
The second hormone released by gratitude is Serotonin:
- Acts as an anti-depressant
- Increases will-power
- Increases motivation
Does Gratitude Rewire the Brain?
With the release of dopamine and serotonin, the stronger our neural pathways that lead to gratitude become.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.”
This is a key component of neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to grow, change, and adapt over time.
This means that the more you practice gratitude, the more you will see the positives in your life, rather than focusing so much on the negative. Your brain will literally direct you down the “gratitude highway” instead of running straight to the “highway of despair.” (I just made those up).
Basically, ANYTHING you repeat rewires the brain. So choose carefully the thoughts that you think!
How Does a Gratitude Journal Reduce Stress?
An Everyday Health article talks about what gratitude actually is, and how it helps reduce stress.
Dr. Julie Vieselmeyer, who is quoted in the article, says that gratitude is simply “shifting of our thoughts and emotions” from what’s stressing us out to what we find valuable in our lives. It follows that when our thoughts lead to more positive emotions, then our behaviors also become more positive.
A way of finding and remembering those valuable parts of our lives is through the use of a Gratitude Journal.
Gratitude Journals have been all the rage for several years. If you want to try one, just write three things you’re grateful for each day, either first thing in the morning, or right before you go to bed. Try to write three different things each day, and then periodically go back and read what you wrote.
As you read what you’re grateful for, hopefully you’ll start to feel that all is not lost–that there is hope for you.
Because there is.
Make sure to read all the posts in this series:
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