Gratitude is one of the most commonly used and proven positive psychology interventions that not only enhances well-being but also is an effective way of self-managing depression. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism. Gratitude buffers you from hurtful feelings of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. In addition, grateful people can cope more effectively with everyday stress and show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress (Emmons, 2013).
Whether or not you have a grateful disposition, the good news is that it is possible to cultivate gratitude intentionally. You can choose one of the following three methods to express gratitude, but most beginners start with a gratitude list at it is a simple yet effective strategy.
Gratitude listsThis the “classic” and the most studied method of expressing gratitude. It involves making written lists of several things for which you are grateful on a regular basis. The most common method of this intervention is through a gratitude diary or journal. Writing down your blessings helps you organize your thoughts, facilitates integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. A simple instruction for counting blessings is, “What three things went well today and why they went well?” Below are some tips to enhance your experience of gratitude journaling (Duggal, 2018):
- Gratitude is not a short-term habit, but a positive virtue that you consciously cultivate.
- You can express gratitude for the simple blessings of life that you may normally take for granted. For example, before meals, you may take a moment to offer your heartfelt thanks for the food to the farmers, the earth, food handlers, chef, etc. An easy way to remember who to thank for simple things in life is the concept of gratitude chain. You express gratitude to all the individuals who sequentially made that thing possible for you.
- In order to overcome boredom with routine counting of daily blessings (also known as gratitude fatigue), research suggests doing the gratitude exercise once a week (Lyubomirsky, 2007). In addition, vary the domains of life in which you express gratitude (e.g., work, relationships, health, etc.) to keep the act of expressing gratitude “fresh” and meaningful. Try to include some surprise or unanticipated blessings to keep the dopamine neurons, which modulate reward, pleasure, and motivation, firing in your brain. You may choose to pick up a different domain of life each week to express gratitude.
- When writing about a blessing or a benefit you received from another person, be specific, break it down to individual elements, and then write in detail about each element.
- It is OK to repeat blessings, but make sure you elaborate on them and give specific details on how they have impacted your life or the life of your loved one and, if possible, how your life would be different if that particular thing hadn’t happened.
- Use gratitude prompts as a reminder to keep flexing your gratitude muscle to make it strong. For example, you can pick a rock with a smooth texture or another small object and carry it in your pocket or keep it on your desk. Whenever you see or touch the rock or the small object, it is a reminder for you to pause and think about at least one thing you are grateful for.
- Instead of using a journal or a diary, you can write three things you are grateful about once or twice a week on strips of paper and put them in a gratitude jar. Take a few notes out of the jar on your low days for a quick boost to your mood.
- You may also count as blessings negative events or situations that you avoided, prevented, escaped, or turned into something positive.
- You may use one of the several smartphone apps on gratitude to transform this into a habit.
Gratitude visitIn gratitude visit, you write a letter to a benefactor thanking them for the gift you received and read the letter to them in person. The purpose of the exercise is to express your gratitude in a thoughtful and purposeful manner beyond the cursory “thank you” note. Instructions for the gratitude visit are as below (Seligman, 2002):
"Think about a person who is still alive who years ago did something or said something that made a major difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. Your task is to write a letter of about 300 words, which should be specific about what the person did for you and how it affected your life. Also, mention in the letter what you are doing now and how you often remember what they did for you. Once you have written the letter, call the person and tell them that you would like to visit them, but be vague about the purpose of the visit; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet the person, read your letter slowly, with expression, and with eye contact. Let the person react to your letter unhurriedly. Take whatever time it takes – a few days to a few weeks – to complete your letter".
Not everyone would be comfortable delivering a letter of gratitude to someone they haven’t met in years. There is good news though. A study showed that all three formats of the gratitude visit – in person, or over the phone, or by mailing the letter either by standard or electronic mail are equally effective (Schueller, 2012).
Grateful contemplationThe practice of grateful contemplation is less specific than gratitude lists in that you think and write about list of activities you were grateful for in a global fashion (past memories of grateful events or things). For example, list of activities over the summer that you are grateful for. People usually choose from one or more of the following categories to write about grateful activities:
- Act of kindness/support from others
1. Describe ways that this thing or event might never have happened or might never have been a part of your life.
2. Describe ways in which it is surprising that this thing or event is a part of your life.
To learn more about evidence-based self-management techniques that are proven to work for depression, check out Dr. Duggal's Author Page.
ReferenceDuggal, H. S. (2018). The happiness guide to self-management of depression. Bloomington, IN: Archway Publishing.
Emmons, R. A. (2013). Gratitude works! San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lyubomirsky, S. The how of happiness. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Schueller, S. M. (2012). Personality fit and positive interventions: Extraverted and introverted individuals benefit from different happiness and increasing strategies. Psychology, 3(12A), 1166-1173.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.