I am big on gratitude. Let me say that upfront.
Study after study on gratitude shows how simple exercises of appreciation build emotional resilience, improve our relationships, and promote our well-being. Gratitude researchers like Martin Seligman, PhD, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Robert Emmons, PhD, director of the Emmons Lab on gratitude research at the University of California in Davis; and Michael McCullough, PhD, director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, demonstrate that people who keep gratitude journals are more optimistic and have fewer physical symptoms than those who don’t, and that daily discussions of gratitude can reduce signs of depression and stress.
The holidays are a good time to reflect on our many blessings and can provide some motivation to practice gratitude on a more regular basis.
However, gratitude can’t protect you from depression just as it can’t protect you from cancer. Moreover, just as a person can be inflicted with lupus or fibromyalgia and be grateful, so, too, can a person be grateful and have a severe mood disorder. Her symptoms of depression or anxiety don’t mean that she’s blind to all the good things in her life. Even as she is bawling at the dinner table, her heart can be filled gratitude.
I make this important distinction because I have been told recently that I should have more gratitude, that my low moods stem from a cup-half-empty perspective. It irritated me the first eleven times. The twelfth time I snapped.
“Gratitude has nothing to do with my depression,” I said. “I fully recognize all of the gifts in my life: a husband who loves my ‘colorful’ personality, two teenagers who haven’t pulled the stupid stunts I did when I was their age, a set of hyper golden retrievers, wise friends who listen to my rants, the best doctor and therapist in Annapolis. I thank God for them every day. I express my appreciation on a daily basis. While I’m trying my best to prime my parasympathetic nervous system and rewire my neural pathways through breathing exercises, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and mindfulness strategies, I’m up against a pretty significant physiological condition at the moment that gratitude can’t cure.”
“I am ill, not ungrateful,” I said. “There’s a big difference.”
“During active appreciation,” Baker writes, “the threatening messages from your amygdala and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.”
I enjoy Baker’s writing, but my anecdotal evidence does not align with his research.
I have found that you absolutely can be grateful and depressed at the same time.
During my lowest days, I kept a gratitude journal in which I recorded five to ten things I was grateful for each day. That exercise helped to create new grooves, or neural passageways, that led to healing; however, it didn’t have the horsepower to abort the brain entirely and grant me a purely optimistic outlook. In every depressive episode, I have never lost sight of my blessings. If anything, my despair made me more aware of them. My gratitude actually contributed to the pain because, while I could see all of this goodness before me, I was incapable of enjoying it. The dichotomy was heart-wrenching and led to further self-bashing.
I don’t think it’s fair to condemn a depressed person for not having gratitude.
Not any more than someone with the flu.
Everyone should practice gratitude as much as they can, and especially those in depressed and anxious states. It is a potent tool that leads to healing and emotional resilience. Being mindful of one’s blessings does rewire neural passageways and generates hope.
But gratitude is also separate from symptoms of depression.
And the two can coexist.