Our brains naturally focus more on the negative events in our lives than the positive, and this is especially the case for people with depression. One great way to counter this bias is to cultivate gratitude, which is a feeling of appreciation, wonder, and thankfulness for life. Gratitude isn’t about circumstances or comparison, which can quickly bring us down. It can help cure disillusionment, envy, and the sense of not being or having “enough.” Gratitude helps us savor life experiences, fosters hope, invites positive emotions, improves self-esteem, and nourishes healthy relationships.
Gratitude is more than a feeling or an attitude; it is “tuning in” to recognize the good. It is a mindset or pattern of thought that takes practice. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Three Good Things
Take time each day to write down three things (positive events, people, or aspects of your life) you’re grateful for. These can be big or small, and if you can’t think of three, focus on one or two. Write about them in as much detail as possible and include how they make you feel. Also, try looking at how your involvement might have helped the “good things” happen. This will add to the benefits of this exercise by building confidence. *
- Bonus: Once a week, make a list of all the positives in your life and why you’re grateful for them. That can be a great tool for helping you develop a “mindset of abundance” and provide evidence of the good things you experience.
2. Mental Subtraction of Positive Events
Think of a positive event in your life, such as an educational achievement and consider what made it possible. What could have gone differently (e.g. decisions or other events) and prevented this event from happening? Write these thoughts down and imagine what your life would be like without the positive event and everything that came from it. Now, remind yourself that it did happen and reflect on the good things it has brought to your life. *
3. Thank-you Therapy
Think of someone in your life who has had a positive influence on you. Write them a detailed, hand-written letter of thanks on stationary you like, and then visit them and read the letter out loud to them. If that last step is too intimidating right now, that’s fine. Start with writing the letter and delivering it in person, if possible. Expressing gratitude to others will benefit both you and them by helping you bond emotionally and fostering trust and good will.
Gratitude amplifies the good in our lives, counters the negative bias from our own minds and the world around us, and helps us connect with others. It inspires joy and helps us overcome fear. It reminds us of loving and supportive people in our lives, of our strengths and achievements, and of the wonders around us.
It might take a while for these exercises to become heartfelt expressions of gratitude or to help you connect to positive emotions, and that’s okay. You may find apps that focus on gratitude helpful, such as the 5-minute journal app, which invites you to write three things you are grateful for each morning. Practicing gratitude will still train your brain to recognize the good things around and within you. This will help you in ways that might take some time to notice but that are powerful contributors to an upward spiral that counters depression. Choose an exercise, and start practicing!
* See the full description of this exercise at berkleley.edu.
Akhtar, M. (2018). Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. London, United Kingdom: Watkins Publishing.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Korb, A. (2015) The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.