You Can Be Grateful and Depressed

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.”

In his book “What Happy People Know,” Dan Baker argues that you can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear, or anxiety, at the same time.

“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.

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16 thoughts on “You Can Be Grateful and Depressed

  1. I agree with you Therese that the two can coexist and do in me also. I start my day out with gratitude then I switch to scanning the horizon for areas of worry. I go over my important relationships to make sure they are intact. Of course, I find something to be anxious about or overthink about. It’s exhausting.

  2. I agree with you Therese I I think it goes along with the saying ‘ the problem with you is your a cup half empty sort of person.’
    An expression I hate.
    I think you can be grateful for what you have. Food on table, a roof over your head, a few kind words ect ect but still fell in the depths of despair.
    My husband has lost the sight in one eye and in danger of loosing the sight in the other.
    I am grateful that we have surgeons trying to save his sight but terrified and can feel desperate that he is even experiencing the journey to find out.
    I am also grateful he is alive but would feel depressed if he lost his sight.
    Just because someone is depressed it doesn’t exclude them from human emotions it’s more complicated than that.
    Lizzie

  3. Therese the world is a better place because you are in it. Thank you for everything you do to educate not only those who suffer from mental illness but those who don’t get it.

  4. I totally agree too and comments from Mr Baker just added more guilt on my shoulders. I have felt many times I am so blessed and have so much to be thankful for so why do i feel like there is something wrong with me and want to give up

  5. I too am proof of what you say. I have been in deep depressions and still remembered the many things that I was grateful for and I also agree that gratitude contributes to pain because I always want to beat myself up over having so much while feeling so low.
    I very much appreciate your blog which I regard as one of my tools of support, and also something to be grateful for.

  6. I agree with both the fact that gratitude and depression (my case is PTSD and MDD) can and do co-exist. I no longer expect people generally to understand. I learned to simply accept my depression as an thing which I have. My psychiatrist says it is like any other illness and I can heal some. She had me make a list of 3 people off the top of my head who recovered somewhat from a malady: a lady whose ribs were all crushed by a tree in an ice storm, a lady with only one strand left in her Achilles tendon and a lady who had a bacterial infection that only 1 to 2 % survive. Each is somewhat better. The rib lady can breath; the Achilles lady can walk with a limp; and the bacterial lady is not in a 6 month long induced coma. I do function most of the time. My daughter helped me develop two strategies for when my emotional expression of mood hurt or scared other people: I can always leave, run out to the car for 5 minutes and call someone, bring my art supplies and go out for 45 minutes, call someone, have shorter visits, and so on. The interesting thing is that people who do not understand are no longer triggered. So I get along better. This helps me and them live with it.

  7. Oh Therese, These last few posts you’ve given us, have given me an Ah-Ha moment. My dark thoughts that swirl around in my head, my Blessings, but I’m still depressed, ETC. I was beginning to feel ask if I am an ungrateful Christian. However, the things you share about yourself, and other people share, have taught me that it’s all part of the mood disorders we have. That is a huge relief to me.

  8. You are so right. Gratitude, depression and anxiety certainly all co exist in my body and mind. I don’t ask God to take away my anxiety anymore. I don’t think that’ll happen. But I do ask that He is with me in my anxiety, and for that I am eternally grateful. We are not alone. God bless you Therese.

  9. I agree that gratitude, depression, and guilt over having whatever it is you are grateful for can certainly exist simultaneously.
    I try to remember that many of these emotions are symptoms of our illness and not part of reality.
    Thank you for this blog and all those who take the time to write to provide support and encouragement to each other.

  10. My sentiments exactly!! I could never reconcile the sadness i had with the blessings I could clearly identify. It was heartbreaking. It is so good to know i am not alone feeling this way

  11. Therese, thank you for telling it like it is, once again. Your blog helps so many of us get perspective on our suffering, a need that is not perceived by many people, including health care providers. Suffering from depression and anxiety is difficult enough, but the added burden of feeling guilty for not appreciating the gift of life, or of family, friends, nature, adds horrible poundage to the burden. Thank you for saying that you can be grateful and depressed at the same time. Your gifts of a sane perspective on a frustrating illness are priceless. I highly recommend Therese’s book, “Beyond Blue” to everyone, I kept it next to my bed during my period of agitated depression, and I still pick it up, even though I am feeling better. I have had several bouts with this disease, which have each lasted over a year. Thanks again, Therese.

  12. This is absolutely true! I have felt so much guilt in my life knowing I had so many blessings, and yet feeling depressed.

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