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How Gratitude Gives Depression the Bum’s Rush

To someone who’s depressed, gratitude is a tough sell. How do you manage to feel grateful for anything if you’d rather just swap it all for oblivion? Depressed thinking traffics in wholesale rejection of life. It spreads aspersion in big thick greasy smears across your entire history, going back to the moment when mom popped you squint-eyed out into the harsh light of a fallen cosmos.

I won’t come at you with some glad-handing guano about how lovely the world is and how stupendously blessed you are to be alive, blah-blah-blah. Among the downers depressives have to weather, the bromides of shiny happy people might be the most infuriating. Feels like the Pollyanna Cowgirl is kicking dung in your face.

But you do need ways to clamber out of the sinkholes you fall into, especially when your hope of doing so shrinks to subatomic proportions.

Let me brass-tack it for you. The thing about gratitude is, it works. Not only can you can crank it up with specific activities, but it’s likely to have a potent, long-run effect on your mood, your energy, your health and your relationships. Start by using it to ladder out of that pit.

Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and  pioneer of the Positive Psychology movement, has made some whopping discoveries about what does and doesn’t assuage depression. He’s evaluated all kinds of interventions, subjecting them to what he calls “the nasty thumb of science.”

One prominent finding was that clients who wrote gratitude letters showed measurable, meaningful, lasting improvement in their moods.

The gratitude letter’s efficacy comes largely from the way it gets you to focus on a single person who has done you some good. Depression can make the world look like a Blair-Witch-Project forest where blurry ghouls skulk around your campsite and pick off your hopes one by one. You can’t see the good trees for the hoodoo woodlands. But the gratitude letter narrows your focus to “one person in your life who has made an enormous positive difference, who’s still alive, whom you have never properly thanked.”

When you sit down to write such a letter, you start to recall not only the glacial peak of what this person has done for you, but all the details of circumstance and implication submerged under your everyday thinking. Their selflessness and consideration stand out in stark relief. You might begin to wonder why you never put this kind of effort into thanking them before.

Writing such a letter yanks you out of depression’s narcissistic orbit. Fastening your focus on someone else for a change brings relief and freedom—you can finally wheel out into wider star-fields, pilot away from the doomed, sludgy planet of your dark thoughts.

If you can muster just a little energy to start such a letter, you might find yourself caught up in the task, carried on a tide of gratefulness that can sweep away depression’s crusty irrationality and obfuscation. Then you’ve harnessed more power to shift your focus away from regret and anxiety.

But gratitude is like everything else—you gotta practice if you want to get to Carnegie Hall (or Giants Stadium, Valhalla, the Land of Canaan). Not that we’re talking jarhead boot-camp or Harvard Med levels of rigor here. You can wring true-blue benefits from five minutes a night of concentrated thankfulness.

Practice gratitude and you’ll start to see your yesterdays as more than just a daisy chain of train wrecks and mixed metaphors. Your past and present are tricked out with gifts that can still yield boons. Your future may be bopping with more possibility than depression has allowed you to see.

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough conducted a study measuring the effects of a gratitude regimen. They divided their subjects into three groups. One group they slotted into what they called the “hassles condition.” These subjects were instructed to keep a daily journal tracking the irritants in their lives—a sort of Shit-Happens diary, a Murphy’s Law Review.

The second group was told simply to record things that affected them during the week without sifting for negative or positive influence. These “events condition” subjects formed a neutral control group.

The third group was instructed to cultivate a “gratitude condition” by spending time at the end of each day listing things they felt grateful for.

After two weeks all the groups completed surveys designed to measure their well-being. Those who’d made nightly lists of things they were grateful for were more optimistic, had greater energy and motivation, spent more time exercising and had fewer physical complaints than subjects in the hassle condition and the neutral group.

That hassle condition is the default setting of depression. It packs your mind with spectral laments and caterwauling complaints. When you’re in deep, the dogpiling dukkha seems to reach critical mass every day.

But you have more control than you might think. Emmons and McCullough’s experiments highlight the power and versatility of focus. So just experiment with this yourself. Start routinely contemplating the small or large good things in your life. Use writing to concretize and clarify your thankfulness. Chances are you’ll spend less time being bummed out, lethargic and sick.

When depression is thudding around in your skull, spreading its heavy muck and poison heat and itch, you can get some relief by taking a cool restorative dip in thankfulness.

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