When I was a kid, we were prompted every Thanksgiving to inventory all we have to be grateful for. But ever since positive psychology confirmed that gratitude goes hand in hand with happiness, we’re made to feel less than whole if we don’t live every day like it’s Thanksgiving.
Self-help gurus and bandwagon stowaways exhort us to list, each day, 3 good things we’re grateful for, or to write a letter thanking a personal benefactor… then corner them into a face-to-face recitation. Doing so, we’re promised, will exorcise our negative thoughts and, ultimately, cure all that ails us.
Even in this age of COVID-19, your wellness coach’s go-to advice is likely to be: “List 3 gratitudes and call me in the morning.”
Gratitude-building activities can make a difference in your life. But they aren’t a panacea.
A Depression Cure? No Thanks
Gratitude is prescribed as if it’s an elixir for depression — an ironic twist for positive psychology, which initially differentiated itself with the promise to build on individual strengths rather than “fixing” mental illness.
But a major meta-analysis published earlier this year — while acknowledging that gratitude interventions may enhance personal relationships and general well-being — concluded, “Whatever the merits [they] have for other outcomes, they are not efficacious for symptoms of depression or anxiety as standalone interventions.”
In other words, gratitude activities — like 3 Good Things, Gratitude Letters, and Keeping a Gratitude Journal — offer benefits, but aren’t salves for mental health problems. When offered with other interventions or included as part of a treatment protocol under a mental health professional’s supervision, they have their place.
Don’t get me wrong; gratitude helps make healthy people happier. In my full-time health coaching practice, I suggested a variation by:
- Discouraging daily journaling about gratitude, based on research that people who make entries once or twice a week reap greater rewards.
- Encouraging clients who favored simple 1-sentence gratitude declarations to list 10 at a time; if they couldn’t get past 3, I recommended more detailed, contemplative entries.
Those listing just 3 good things tend to limit themselves to greatest hits like, “My family; my home; my health.” The benefit of excavating less conspicuous gratitude (“I’m grateful I was watching when a maple tree’s last reddened leaf drifted to the ground yesterday”) is explained by an overlooked mechanism of gratitude journaling: Efficacy isn’t restricted to the good vibes that arise as you write. Once you’ve adopted a gratitude-journaling habit, you increasingly find yourself noticing throughout your day the objects, interactions, and people you’re grateful for — the appreciation you will journal about. This secret to sustainable transformation results from being introspective rather than automatic.
Insisting on universal gratitude, including to those experiencing mental health problems, is risky — like the toxic positivity Beth Shepard describes in a recent HES post. Leave professional care to professionals. And be mindful that emotional well-being embodies a full range of thoughts and feelings.
I love gratitude activities rooted in science and delivered in context. That’s why the Work of Art emotional well-being program I helped HES create incorporates several activities to boost gratitude — along with others for mindfulness, connection, optimism, and more. Participants can choose which to weave into their personalized practices. No hyperbole; no toxic positivity. Just results-focused, interactive opportunity for folks to band together and enjoy happy thanks giving.
Learn more about Work of Art.
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Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.