When Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania were concluding a research experiment on thankfulness and depression, they received quite a surprise. The experiment was simple, almost laughably so. During the course of a few weeks, the participants were asked to fill out a so-called Gratitude Journal each day. A Gratitude Journal is nothing more than a journal or notebook where you regularly write down things that you are thankful for. This could be large and important things; like the love you feel for a family member or friend, or small things like that it was a sunny day today or that you saw a film you liked. As part of the experiment, Seligman asked the participants to register how deep their depressions were.
And here is the surprise: those with the deepest depressions reported the greatest effect! This is a rather provoking scientific finding. After decades of development of different types of therapy and psychopharma, it has been established that writing a few things down that one is thankful for can have a tremendous positive effect.
Here is an attempt to explain how this simple tactic works: A person with depression lives in a bubble, where all impulses from the outside world are interpreted before they reach the person inside the bubble. This is by and large a universal phenomenon, we all live in such bubbles, the difference is the degree to which the bubble has a negative, neutral or positive effect on how we feel. I refer to this phenomenon as reality filters.
It is irrelevant to talk about reality as it exists objectively; the only thing that matters is how the world appears to individuals. A simple example of how reality changes with these filters is how a glass of wine can change how one sees the world. Or the different perceptions of reality found between a communist and a CEO, or an adult and a teenager, and so on…
These filters are created by many different things, most of them coming from our upbringing and things we have experienced. If you have experienced violence or abuse, you will probably see men (or women, because not all abuse is perpetrated by men) in a completely different light than others. If you grow up in a religious sect, the chances are that you see the world differently than somebody who grew up among atheists. If you have a career in the military you will see international politics differently than if you were a pacifist.
Returning to depression. Many (most?) people suffering from depression look at themselves and their surroundings through a very gloomy reality filter. They go around talking down on themselves in a constant internal dialogue. You idiot, they might say, you never succeed at anything. Or: You are ugly, and no one will ever like you. If you were to say this to yourself 100 times every day, what do you think this would do for your chances of finding a partner? Reality filters turn into self-fulfilling prophecies; you find what you are looking for. On account of this, reality filters are by nature self-reinforcing.
If you tell yourself that you cannot tackle social situations due to social anxiety, then you will be less capable of handling social situations in reality. The social anxiety will increase, and then you will have more reason to tell yourself that you cannot handle social situations. And so on. If the depression is connected to your seeing yourself as unattractive, you will become less attractive, and therefore more depressed.
To break this self-reinforcing mechanism you must learn to think in a different way. The good news is that the positive spirals are also self-reinforcing. Imagine a stream that is running down a slope. The stream digs deeper and wider into the slope each day. Then one day an excavator arrives and digs a small, alternative streambed. Some of the water trickles down this way. If the excavator digs a little more each day, more and more water will begin to trickle down this streambed. Eventually it will no longer be necessary to dig; the alternative streambed will make itself larger. In the end, most of the water will take this course.
Thankfulness can be the excavator. If the majority of your thoughts are about everything that is wrong in the world (war, poverty, environmental degradation etc.), it isn’t strange that you can get depressed. But if you manage to gradually think more about what you actually can be thankful for in life, and less on what you lack, then you have begun to think in a different way. If you manage to create a habit out of this, the positive aspects of life will become increasingly more important. The cup will be half-full and not half-empty.
Thankfulness alone will, as a rule, not be enough to eliminate depression. But it can be an important contributor, and every little bit counts. If you do not take action because you are waiting for a cure to depression that is 100% effective, you will never act. There are no such cures. But there are many different techniques that combined can make a large difference.
This is why I recommend that everybody who struggles with depression should try the Gratitude Journal for a few weeks. Once you have done this you can simply continue, as this can become a beneficial habit for life. Perhaps this small act can result in you having more strength and motivation to take other actions; such as exercising more, changing your thinking patterns with cognitive therapy, being more socially active etc.
More thankfulness can become a snowball that rolls down a snowy hill, growing by each revolution. Who knows where it might take you?
Kristian Hall suffered from depression for more than a decade, before he was able to beat the illness through techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Positive Psychology. He is the author of the self-help book Rise from Darkness, about how to overcome depression. Read more at kristianhall.com.