In a world of cheesy motivational posters and cheery-faced self-help gurus, the word ‘gratitude’ can be overused. At times it can be pushed as something of a panacea to the harsh realities of modern life. Suggesting it as a means to help overcome depression can therefore seem, well, pretty oblivious and tactless; especially if that’s how you’re framing it.
But hear me out.
I want to make one thing clear: gratitude is not a miracle cure for depression. Nor is it a surefire defence against becoming depressed in the first place. And yes, in the blackest mires of deep depression the idea of gratitude can feel utterly alien. When coldness and misery is your day-to-day reality, how can you even begin to focus on gratitude?
The fact is, gratitude is a habit. It’s the putting down on paper things you would rarely verbalise – and through doing so, thinking about things in ways you probably wouldn’t usually. It’s going to feel clunky, awkward, and time-consuming to begin with, but each time you push yourself through it you are forging new neural pathways – in the same way that mindfulness is a technique and way of being that can be learned and fostered.
One of the things depression does is take you down the same trains of thought over and over again, taking you to the same conclusions each time and becoming more and more entrenched. The positives in life are glossed over, pushed aside, and become easier to ignore with each trip until they’re all just one big grey blur in the background of your mind.
Gratitude helps by pulling these into focus once more, little by little. It doesn’t make the bad go away, but it can help add that perspective that gets lost all too easily.
So how do you start?
One place to start is with three things.
Simply writing down three good things that you are thankful for in your life, ideally every day (but every week can be a more manageable commitment to begin with). To maximise this, it can be built into a routine: writing down three things that you already have to be thankful for at the start of the day, and then finishing the day by writing three things you are grateful for in that day. Even being grateful for one thing every day starts to chip away at the wall of negativity around you. Each positive reflection helps banish the lie that you don’t matter, aren’t good enough, or have nothing going for you.
The thing about gratitude is, it isn’t just a personal thing; it’s something that can be shared. Think back to the last time someone expressed their heartfelt gratitude for something you’ve done. It feels amazing when someone thanks you like that, but you also probably had to think for a very long time to come up with something. That’s not a reflection on you; as a society (or as a race?) we are spectacularly bad at expressing gratitude for other people on a regular basis. Those closest to us, who often do the most and mean the most to us, can easily feel unappreciated or taken for granted. When we focus on personal gratitude, it becomes much easier to share that with others – showing that heartfelt, unexpected gratitude to other people for their value and contribution to our lives. Making other people feel better can also be a great way of boosting your own mood, even if it feels a bit forced to begin with.
A note on things feeling forced: there is a difference between things feeling forced simply because they aren’t habitual, and things actually being forced because you are insincere. Insincere gratitude is the smile you pasted on your face as you opened that itchy, ugly woollen jumper at Christmas: most people can smell fake gratitude a mile away.
Depression is a time when you deserve, and need, to put your own well-being first. There may be times in life where some fake gratitude is needed to keep the peace and maintain relationships (particularly in families), but when you’re fighting depression you need to be real. Real with yourself, and real with others. Pretending you’re grateful for things you aren’t is not helpful.
Whether you’re depressed or not, starting a habit of gratitude is a fantastic habit that you can start today. Sharing the positivity by expressing gratitude to others goes one step at a time towards a much healthier world. People are so quick to complain, but rarely let people know when things are good; let’s try and change that. So, in short, not a panacea – but a damn good thing to do, for everyone involved.