Cultivating Gratitude: How It Counters Depression and 3 Ways to Get Started

Our brains naturally focus more on the negative events in our lives than the positive, and this is especially the case for people with depression. One great way to counter this bias is to cultivate gratitude, which is a feeling of appreciation, wonder, and thankfulness for life. Gratitude isn’t about circumstances or comparison, which can quickly bring us down. It can help cure disillusionment, envy, and the sense of not being or having “enough.” Gratitude helps us savor life experiences, fosters hope, invites positive emotions, improves self-esteem, and nourishes healthy relationships.

Gratitude is more than a feeling or an attitude; it is “tuning in” to recognize the good. It is a mindset or pattern of thought that takes practice.  Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Three Good Things

Take time each day to write down three things (positive events, people, or aspects of your life) you’re grateful for. These can be big or small, and if you can’t think of three, focus on one or two. Write about them in as much detail as possible and include how they make you feel. Also, try looking at how your involvement might have helped the “good things” happen. This will add to the benefits of this exercise by building confidence. *

  • Bonus: Once a week, make a list of all the positives in your life and why you’re grateful for them. That can be a great tool for helping you develop a “mindset of abundance” and provide evidence of the good things you experience.

2. Mental Subtraction of Positive Events

Think of a positive event in your life, such as an educational achievement and consider what made it possible. What could have gone differently (e.g. decisions or other events) and prevented this event from happening? Write these thoughts down and imagine what your life would be like without the positive event and everything that came from it. Now, remind yourself that it did happen and reflect on the good things it has brought to your life. * 

3. Thank-you Therapy

Think of someone in your life who has had a positive influence on you. Write them a detailed, hand-written letter of thanks on stationary you like, and then visit them and read the letter out loud to them. If that last step is too intimidating right now, that’s fine. Start with writing the letter and delivering it in person, if possible. Expressing gratitude to others will benefit both you and them by helping you bond emotionally and fostering trust and good will.


Gratitude amplifies the good in our lives, counters the negative bias from our own minds and the world around us, and helps us connect with others. It inspires joy and helps us overcome fear. It reminds us of loving and supportive people in our lives, of our strengths and achievements, and of the wonders around us.

It might take a while for these exercises to become heartfelt expressions of gratitude or to help you connect to positive emotions, and that’s okay. You may find apps that focus on gratitude helpful, such as the 5-minute journal app, which invites you to write three things you are grateful for each morning. Practicing gratitude will still train your brain to recognize the good things around and within you. This will help you in ways that might take some time to notice but that are powerful contributors to an upward spiral that counters depression. Choose an exercise, and start practicing!

 

* See the full description of this exercise at berkleley.edu.

References

Akhtar, M. (2018).  Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.  London, United Kingdom: Watkins Publishing.

Brown, B. (2010).  The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Korb, A. (2015) The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

The Power of Heartfelt Positivity: Reducing Negativity

6 amazing tips to reduce negativity and bring joy into your life, right now.

Research has revealed that we are most likely to flourish when we have at least three positive experiences for every negative (for people with mental illness, this ratio may be higher).  However, our brains are wired to focus more on the negative aspects of our lives – the red lights, the rude comments – than the positive. This can make it difficult to achieve the optimal 3:1 ratio, but it’s not impossible. A good place to start is by finding ways to decrease the negativity you experience. Here are a few tips that can help:

1. Dispute Negative Beliefs

We need some negativity in our lives; it keeps us grounded and is part of being human. To be beneficial, it needs to be appropriate – that is, specific and correctable – such as guilt that motivates us to correct a mistake or conflict that leads to an important change in perspective. All too often, inappropriate negativity drags us into a downward spiral. These spirals happen when negative emotions and thoughts feed on each other until we can’t see the situation or ourselves clearly and are weighed down in unhelpful emotions such as despair and shame.To interrupt this pattern, it is helpful to practice disputation – that is, stepping back to look at all the facts of a situation and see it more realistically. Consider effort, intentions, progress, and possibilities for improvement and success. Be a fair judge that takes into account all of the evidence, not just the mind’s negatively distorted interpretation of a setback or mistake. This isn’t about suppressing negative thoughts but dissolving them with a realistic lens and being able to make something good out of a challenge.

2. Interrupt Rumination

We may all sometimes get trapped in rumination, which is when we can’t seem to stop examining worries, concerns, and questions from every possible negative angle. To escape rumination, you need to be aware of when it’s happening and then engage in a healthy distraction such as exercise or reading. Be careful that your distraction isn’t harmful and doesn’t become just a way to numb unpleasantness – its job is to break the cycle of rumination, so you can approach challenges with a clearer mind and experience more positivity.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Expert Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This kind of awareness can help you take a mental and emotional step back, allow yourself to fully experience the present, and recognize your thoughts for what they are: thoughts. Mindfulness is a skill that can be cultivated through the practice of mindful movement (e.g. stretching), formal or informal meditation, meditation, and focusing on one task or idea at a time. It may be helpful to have guided meditations such as those found at Berkeley’s Mindfulness articles.

4. Diffuse Negativity Land Mines

Important perspective can come from “zooming in” on a particular day to recognize specific sources of harmful negativity, or considering which parts of your normal daily routine can be seen as “land mines.” These can be avoidable – such as a depressing movie or overreacting in anger – or alterable, at least in part. For example, you might practice mindfulness during a task that usually fuels anxiety. Try to have emotional distance between you and these negativity triggers when you’re examining them; it may be helpful to use other negativity-decreasing tools first so you can be in a neutral or positive emotional state when you’re assessing your life.

5. Assess Your Media Diet

Consuming media can lead to an overdose of all kinds of negativity if we’re not careful, resulting in skewed beliefs of what’s “normal”, real, and acceptable; harmful feelings such as shame or depression; and reduced enjoyment in daily living. Take an honest look at the media you “eat” and consider: What is it telling you about violence, race, sexuality, and body image? How does it make you feel about yourself? It may be helpful to “trim” some of the unnecessary negativity we take in through movies, the nightly news, social media, etc., not only by reducing time spent on media but changing the kind of media we choose to take in. For example, getting news online rather than TV allows you to sort through headlines and consume only the articles and videos you want to.

6. Negativity and Other People

When talking about others, highlight the positive rather than flaws or mishaps, and substitute light humor for sarcasm or making fun at another person’s expense. If you are around someone who brings needless negativity, you can: (1) Modify the situation by becoming aware of how you might add fuel to the negativity; working together on tasks that inspire both of you; or lighten the scene with compassion, hope, or humor. (2) Look for positive traits in the person you can appreciate. (3) Mentally reframe the situation and practice mindfulness, looking for opportunities to grow rather than adding more negativity.


Positivity has been found to have remarkable power to help us in every area of our lives – from physical health to relationships – and most of us probably don’t have enough of it.  Although some negativity is natural and even needed, we can begin to invite more positivity into our lives by recognizing influences that drag us down in unhealthy spirals of negative thoughts and emotions and then acting to loosen their hold on our minds, relationships, and daily patterns of living.

References

Fredrickson, B. (2009).  Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.  New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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