Gratitude is great, but it isn’t going to fix these major issues

Maintaining a true sense of gratitude is an elusive accomplishment in today’s day and age. We all tend to get caught up in the mundane problems of our lives, and it’s very easy to forget just how good we have it. Even the seemingly basic necessities that virtually all Americans enjoy, such as running water, shelter, and even Wifi, are luxuries that many people don’t have access to in 2020.

Keeping these facts in mind and staying grateful through all of life’s trials and tribulations is definitely helpful. However, a new study conducted at Ohio State University finds that gratitude alone probably isn’t enough to help many suffering from frequent bouts of depression and anxiety.

These findings aren’t so much an indictment of gratitude’s benefits, but an illustration of just how detrimental depression and anxiety can be to one’s well being. 

Researchers performed a comprehensive analysis of 27 prior studies that investigated the effects of “gratitude interventions” on patients dealing with depression and anxiety. A gratitude intervention is a type of support exercise in which patients are asked to focus on and perhaps write down some of the positive aspects in their life.

Surprisingly, the research team’s review of these projects revealed “limited benefits at best” in regards to gratitude effectively treating depression or anxiety.

“For years now, we have heard in the media and elsewhere about how finding ways to increase gratitude can help make us happier and healthier in so many ways,” says David Cregg, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State, in a press release. “But when it comes to one supposed benefit of these interventions – helping with symptoms of anxiety and depression – they really seem to have limited value.”

Two of the most commonly used gratitude interventions are the “three good things” exercise and the “gratitude visit” exercise. Three good things entails writing down three interactions or experiences that went well that day and reflecting on them, while the gratitude visit exercise involves writing a letter to someone who has been a positive influence on one’s life and then read the message aloud to said person.

The majority of the 27 studies incorporated into this research involved at least one of these two exercises. In all, the analysis encompassed 3,675 people.

Meanwhile, many of the studied experiments also included people trying out different mental health exercises unrelated to cultivating grateful feelings. For example, instead of writing about three positive experiences each night, one experiment with college students asked participants to keep a daily journal about their classroom experiences and schedules.

All in all, the OSU researchers didn’t see much of a difference between the gratitude exercises and the rest, indicating that staying grateful isn’t all that effective in and of itself when it comes to overcoming depression and anxiety.

“There was a difference, but it was a small difference,” explains co-author Jennifer Cheavens, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State. “It would not be something you would recommend as a treatment.”

With these results in mind, the study’s authors recommend patients seek out more thorough mental health treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Mental health problems in general, especially depression and anxiety, have been grossly misunderstood for decades. It’s exceedingly common, even to this day, for people to coldly view others’ depression and tell them: “What do you have to be depressed about? Your life isn’t that bad.” 

In the end, no one should judge another’s mental state or how they should feel. As anyone with a pulse can attest, we’re all dealing with private thoughts, emotions, and fears that are entirely unique. So, simply telling someone to “be grateful” is rarely enough to lift that person out of a depressive episode or anxiety attack.

“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 want to see,” Cheavens adds. “It might be that these sorts of interventions, on their own, aren’t powerful enough or that people have difficulty enacting them fully when they are feeling depressed and anxious.”

Gratitude is still an important ingredient when it comes to strong mental health and a happy life, but the key takeaway here is that it isn’t a universal cure. As much as we all would love to wake up one morning and simply will our anxieties and fears for the future away, that’s just not how humans work. 

“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,” Cregg concludes. “The problem is when we try to turn gratefulness into a self-help tool. Gratitude can’t fix everything.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.