Study: Gratitude is an Antidepressant

A new study reveals that daily expressions of gratitude can lessen depression and boost happiness, especially in self-critical people.

August 23, 2009

Small moments of gratitude can have a big impact on our mood.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS PA—A new study presented at the annual American Psychological Association meeting this month appears to answer an age-old question unequivocally—especially for people who tend to be self-critical. What makes people happy? Being grateful for the good thing that you have in your life.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers at York University in Toronto divided 200 moderately depressed people into two groups. Over the course of seven days, one group listened daily to music designed to boost mood, and the other completed an online “gratitude exercise” every night, in which they were asked to list “five things that happened during the day that [they] were grateful for.” At five different points (start of study, end of study week, and one, three, and six months post-study), the researchers measured the participants’ depressive symptoms, happiness, and satisfaction with life in general. What they found was that both groups were less depressed six months post-study, but the self-critical individuals in the gratitude group reported a greater boost in overall happiness than any of the other participants.

WHAT IT MEANS: Gratitude offers a paradigm shift—a change in perspective when perhaps nothing else has changed. “A sense of gratitude helps you feel positive about the people and things in your life, and about your life in general,” says psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., director of Life Management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts and a Rodale.com advisor. “When you have positive feelings about your life, you tend to be happier, more energetic, and more productive." To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, says Rossman: “You can’t always get what you want, but you can be grateful for what you have. In fact, being grateful for what you have is one of the keys to being happy and having satisfying relationships.”

If the Stones don't convince you, Rossman suggests taking the advice of a different kind of celebrity. “Albert Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life: One is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle,’ Rossman continues. “When you appreciate the miracle of your life, you live with a profound sense of gratitude for the gift of life, and that enables you to live a more vital and satisfying life.”

Here’s how to maximize gratitude—and, therefore, happiness—in your own life:

• Count your blessings—literally. It worked for the people in the study. “Set aside some time every evening to list five things that happened the day for which you are grateful,” suggests lead study author Myriam Mongraine, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at York University. “If this format doesn’t suit your lifestyle, do it whenever you can, inside your head. It might help to do it when you’re stuck or feeling low. It will help you keep a good perspective and feel better.”

• Keep a “gratitude journal.” To take the gratitude list a step further, write down the things you are grateful for every day, suggests Rossman. That way, you can refer back to your blessings anytime you're having a particularly negative day.

• Say Grace. “Take a moment to say Grace before meals, reflecting on the blessing of having delicious and healthful food to eat,” says Rossman. It’s a simple but powerful reminder of at least one important blessing that often gets overlooked in the hubbub of everyday life. If you're not religious, simply express your gratitude in whatever manner suits you.

• Send thank-you notes. It's an increasingly-ignored tradition that benefits the sender as much as the recipient. “Write and deliver a gratitude letter to someone who has helped you in an important way and whom you have not had the opportunity to fully thank,” suggests Rossman. You'll be surprised how good it feels.

• Say, “Thanks!” Everytime you don't thank someone for some small kindness, you miss a moment of happiness. “Make a point of expressing your thanks to everyone who does something for you that you appreciate,” says Rossman. “You will not only make their day, you’ll also feel good about yourself for taking time to acknowledge the other person.”