Over 40 million Americans are struggling with mental health concerns, according to Mental Health America (MHA). Since MHA released its first State of Mental Health in America report in 2015, there have already been “alarming increases” in adult suicidal ideation and major depressive episodes in young people, demonstrating how serious this problem has become.
As someone who suffers from depression, I can tell you firsthand how debilitating mental health issues can be and it can feel as if there are no remedies available to really address the problem. If you go see a doctor, you will likely be prescribed medication. And while some find this approach helpful, others, like myself, have fallen victim to some of the horrendous side-effects of antidepressants, which include severe weight gain, an increase in suicidal thoughts, and even death.
But what if instead of taking a pill that comes with a list of risk factors, something as simple as gratitude could be the answer? This might sound overly simplistic, but as it turns out, there is actually science to back up this claim.
Not Just Self-Help Mumbo Jumbo, It’s Science
A few years ago, Dr. Joshua Brown, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and his colleague, Dr. Joel Wong, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University set out to answer one question: “How can they help clients derive the greatest possible benefit from treatment in the shortest amount of time?”
Over the course of their research, the pair came to the conclusion that the answer to this question could be found in supplementing traditional therapy sessions with gratitude exercises. Over the last decade, several studies have found that those who routinely count their blessings are overall happier and experience less depression. However, while much of this research focused on those who did not suffer from mental health concerns, Brown and Wong set out to see if gratitude could make a noticeable difference for those struggling with mental health issues.
Brown and Wong, along with others, conducted a study comprised of nearly 300 college students who had each sought mental health counseling on campus. The participants were recruited right before they began counseling and each suffered from some degree of anxiety and depression. The student participants were separated into three groups. In addition to therapy, the first group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. The second group was asked to dig deep and write about their negative life experiences. And the third group was not asked to do any sort of writing activity. And the results were fascinating.
Brown and Wong write:
What did we find? Compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.
Digging even deeper into their findings and looking specifically at how gratitude impacts the mind and body, Brown and Wong made four groundbreaking discoveries:
- Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions.
- Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it.
- Gratitude’s benefits take time.
- Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain.
From personal experience, I can attest to the findings discovered in Brown and Wong’s research. Like so many others, I periodically find myself trapped in a thick darkness from which it feels as though there is no escape. Over the course of my three decades—give or take a few years—on this earth, I have tried every remedy known to man from medication to psychotherapy and everything in between. While some resources have helped more than others, nothing has had as profound an impact on my mental state, and my life, quite like gratitude journaling has.
A Little Gratitude Goes a Long Way
The winter of 2019 was particularly rough for me. Already in the midst of a depressive episode, my mental state was worsened when my boyfriend broke up with me a week before the holidays, just days after my doctors had discovered a large tumor in my left breast. To make matters worse, my career was struggling, my finances were a mess, and I was missing my family, who lived 2,000 miles away. Generally speaking, my life was not going the way I had hoped and I was slowly drowning in my own self-pity.
“Why do bad things keep happening to me?” I thought to myself. “For once, can’t something just go right?” Depression or not, we have all arrived at this place before and we have all experienced these types of negative thoughts and emotions. Truthfully speaking, in a world full of suffering and obstacles, it’s quite a feat to not feel this way a majority of the time.
My mind seemed eager to remind me of all the things that had been going wrong in my life and everything I didn’t have. Yet, I finally found solace when I started making a concerted effort to pay attention to all the blessings I had been given.
Just when things were at their darkest, a friend suggested that I begin keeping a gratitude journal. I wasn’t initially sold on the idea that something so simple could reverse my mood and penetrate my darkness. But I figured I didn’t have much to lose and decided to give it a try.
Even on mornings when it was hard just to get out of bed, I forced myself to get up and make a list of everything for which I was grateful. Oddly enough, while my life had felt devoid of meaning and goodness for the previous several months, each morning that I sat down with my journal I never found myself at a loss for what to write.
The words effortlessly flowed from my pen as I jotted down at least 10 people or things for which I was thankful each day. In the depths of my sorrow, I had been so focused on what I didn’t have, I had completely forgotten to be thankful for everything I did have.
How fortunate I was to have a roof over my head, food in my kitchen, and, most importantly, a group of friends who refused to give up on me even when my depression made loving me a trying task. After a few weeks had passed, and my gratitude journal was filled with pages of tangible blessings—mostly comprised of the amazing people who were a part of my life—my mood slowly began to change. As it turns out, showing gratitude can serve as a light that can help lead us back to where we need to be when we get lost in darkness.
As Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
To say gratitude journaling fixed everything and cured my depression would be a lie. But it played an integral role in getting me out of the crisis I was in.
The Five Minute Journal
Modern humans live busy lives. With everything that is going on, many probably wonder how they could possibly manage to spare the time to sit down and list all their blessings in a daily journal. The truth is, for the sake of our mental health and well being, most of us can’t afford to skip this vital practice.
Showing gratitude doesn’t have to be a complex or time-consuming exercise. In fact, for those interested in starting a journal but wary of the time it may take, The Five Minute Journal offers a great way to get started and, as the title says, will not take up a lot of your time.
Each page of The Five Minute Journal features an inspirational quote and is separated into a day and night portion. For the day section, you write three things you are thankful for along with three things that would make your day great, along with a daily affirmation. At night, you write about three great things that happened to you during your day and fill out a sentence or two about how the day could have gone even better.
While not a strict “gratitude only” journal, it sets the foundation for gratitude journaling for those who, like I was in the beginning, are not yet completely sold on this tactic. And, if you are mindful and consistent, in a matter of a few weeks you will begin to notice a change in your mindset, however small it might be at first. As Eckhart Tolle says, “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”
Every time I get inside a car, I put my seatbelt on to guard against potential accidents. I don’t forget this step, because it’s important to my livelihood. Likewise, every morning when I wake up, I get out of bed and fill out my gratitude journal to stave off the negativity and guard against depression. My gratitude journal is not a luxury that I attend to only when it is convenient or when I have time. It is a necessity and a reminder of how much I have, even in moments when I feel as though I have lost everything. To set yourself up for success and keep the demons at bay, showing gratitude is just what the doctor ordered.
Brittany Hunter is a senior writer for the Foundation for Economic Education. This article was originally published on FEE.org.