Gratitude: An Antidote to Depression?

Catholic Therapist on Virtue and Mental Health

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By Genevieve Pollock

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, NOV. 26, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Gratitude transforms a negative self-focus into a positive other-focus, strengthening relationships with God and others, says therapist Eric Gudan.

Gudan is a senior clinical extern at Alpha Omega Clinic and Counseling Services, and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a Catholic graduate school of psychology.

In this interview, Gudan spoke with ZENIT about his experience and study of how the virtue of gratitude may counteract the effects of depression.

Q: What, from your psychological perspective, defines the virtue of gratitude? What characteristics can be seen in a grateful person?

Gudan: Gratitude is the positive emotional experience resulting from the recognition that another person has given you a benefit.

Gratitude is a positive moral affect. In other words, it is a pleasant feeling arising from the good action another has done to you, from judging that it has been good for you.

Almost everyone has experienced gratitude and regards it favorably, but some people are more grateful than others.

A more grateful individual will experience gratitude toward more people, for more events, more deeply, and for a longer period of time.

Multiple studies have shown that gratitude can inspire people to "pay it forward," responding to the gift of a good deed by giving another person the gift of a good deed, in addition to another gift returned to the original benefactor.

Thus, a grateful person is sensitive to gifts and goodness in the world. He sees good things around him and it lifts him up, moving him to action for others.

Q: What effect can the virtue of gratitude have on our mental health? What does the lack of gratitude do to our psychology?

Gudan: Studies have shown that most people upon making an expression of gratitude found that it contributed to feeling "extremely happy" or "somewhat happy."

A growing number of studies have linked gratitude with higher general feelings of happiness and have found that more grateful persons are more satisfied with life. This includes people who may not necessarily feel grateful, but attempt to arrive at the virtue by mental exercises such as thinking about the gifts that they received.

Thus, whenever you feel grateful you are happier, and when you practice gratitude you are happier.

Q: In particular, how can the virtue of gratitude affect the life of someone who struggles with depression?

Gudan: Depression is a complicated thing, an inter-related web of multiple causes and consequences involving genetics, brain chemistry, attitudes, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. It is difficult for psychologists to distinguish what is the cause and what is the consequence of the various aspects of depression.

However, one way of confronting depression is seeing the power that negative attitudes have upon our experience of the world and our relationships, affecting our behaviors and ultimately even our brain chemistry.

Depressed persons generally have a negative attitude and are frustrated with all the bad things that are happening to them. They feel like "they just can't get a break, that they just can't get what they want."

This negative attitude becomes a filter that focuses and amplifies all the bad things that happen.

For some reason, it is far easier for us to remember bad things that have happened to us rather than good things. Depressed persons think that "they are getting a raw deal from life and just don't have the ability to get what they want."

Gratitude, on the other hand, is the uplifting feeling resulting from the recognition that another person has done something good for us. Instead of a negative self-focus, gratitude has a positive other-focus.

Furthermore, gratitude naturally pushes us to act. Depressed persons have difficulty focusing and mustering the energy to do much of anything.

Gratitude helps us to be altruistic, which has multiple positive effects.

Q: Sometimes, a person who is depressed has trouble taking that "first step" toward getting better. What is the "first step" toward the virtue of gratitude?

Gudan: Yes, depression can be like a dark cloud that darkens thought and makes all movements sluggish. Little sparks of gratitude seem insufficient to start a blaze of positive activity in this damp environment.

However, I believe gratitude acts in a positive spiral. The depressed person can start by simply attempting to recognize gifts from others in order to begin to feel more grateful.

The "fake it 'till you make it" can be very effective.

But you asked me about the first step. Gratitude is not a "Pollyanna-ish" rose-colored glass that makes all of our problems go away.

The depressed person should not expect that feeling grateful will, overnight, turn around his negative attitudes or habits that his depression has been pushing him into for weeks.

First, I would tell someone to take realistic stock of where he is.

Yes, life is not as good as you would like. Yes, there are things you don't like about it. But this attitude simply leaves you less motivated and less happy. Would you like to try a different way to look at things?

Then, I would propose gratitude exercises, to build the virtue of gratitude by repeated practice. Again, although gratitude will not solve all your problems, it does help you see the problems in perspective as well as hidden resources and benefits.

Since the depressed person usually has weak gratitude muscles, it will take some building up to feel gratitude more easily, more often, and more intensely.

But it is definitely something we can get better at and will make us happier if we do. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a well-respected researcher on happiness, has theorized that while external circumstances and genetics account for a good portion of our happiness, 40% of our happiness is totally within our control.

A first exercise that I would recommend is keeping a gratitude journal every day for a week, and then once a week after that.

Simply list three things you are grateful for, and the person responsible. Allow yourself to feel positively because of these little benefits, which could be as small as a chance encounter with an old friend, the beauty of a sunset, or dinner made for you.

Another exercise that is particularly powerful is a gratitude visit. Reflect upon someone in your past who has significantly helped you, such as a teacher, whom you have never really explicitly thanked. Then, write that person a letter. For maximum benefit, deliver the letter in person.

Q: Do you think that the virtues are a cure for depression, or any other mental illness?

Gudan: I think that gratitude builds up the resources that help a person out of depression. It should not be seen as a cure for everyone, but it is helpful for anyone.

Gratitude improves a person's relationships with the human community and even with God so she can receive strength from others, including another person as well as the divine Person.

Furthermore, I believe it improves the person's resiliency so that circumstances that would otherwise start a depression do not overcome him.

Tough times will come and the person will not always be euphoric, but gratitude is a personal characteristic that anyone can work on to feel better and be better.

A grateful person is more psychologically healthy. Building virtues like gratitude is the psychological equivalent to eating healthier and getting more exercise; character strengths make us psychologically stronger and help us to flourish.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is feeling "down" in a particular way around the holidays?

Gudan: Sometimes, a person might think she is obliged to feel thankful. Thanksgiving day, for example, may make people feel guilty for not being particularly grateful.

The holidays, when everyone seems to be so very happy, may augment the negative focus and push the person to think that he is somehow defective for not being more grateful or happy.

While gratitude is a very healthy attitude to increase, I would clarify the emotional from the cognitive components.

If you have received a gift but it still does not cheer you up, there is something else going on. You may have other concerns which are preventing you from seeing the gift as good as it is or you may judge that there are strings attached to this gift.

Indebtedness, the negative emotion arising from the reception of a gift, is not gratitude. If a person judges that the other gave the gift so that he would be in the benefactor's debt, it is easy to see why that would not cheer up the indebted individual.

Sometimes emotions can be so strong as to make it difficult to sort through what is going on in these interpersonal relationships. In these circumstances it sometimes requires the help of a therapist to see relationships as they are.

While some people do not give totally altruistically, most people do not give in a completely selfish way, either. It might help to ask: Is there any modicum of generosity that I can look at from this gift I have received?

When it is difficult to see any goodness in the action, our faith can help us to see things in a greater perspective.

Some saints have been able to feel gratitude toward their persecutors, at times, because the sufferings they endured allowed them to show their love for God. With this perspective then, it can help to consider something like: Is it possible to "reframe" the situation of the person who cut me off in traffic as an opportunity to learn patience?

In a more general way, every person that exists is a gift for you. Starting, of course, with you.

You did not have to exist, but God chose to give you the gift of life. Any other benefit you may possibly have, including eternal life in heaven, is possible because you have been given existence. Have an attitude of "gift" to see the good things that have been given to you.

We have been created to love and be loved. There is a way to consider every person you come into contact with as a gift, an opportunity to love in order to become the person you were made to be.

In addition, any love that you have experienced through another person is a gift. Thus, with this attitude, there is always something to be grateful for.

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On the Net:

Alpha Omega Clinic and Counseling Services: www.aoccs.org

Institute for the Psychological Sciences: www.ipsciences.edu