Be content? Rejoice? That can be a tall order at times, when the doom and gloom of depression is hanging over us. Sometimes the tunnel vision that comes with depression does not allow us to view our situation with anything even verging on positivity. So when a therapist first suggested I begin keeping a gratitude journal, I was quite averse to the notion. What did I have to be grateful for, after all? But I agreed to try it for a week.
The concept of a gratitude journal is to have a place to record each day three to five things for which we are grateful. It doesn’t have to be a formal journal, but it is helpful to write down the items we think of so that we can go back and review our gratitude lists from time to time. It was suggested that I wait until the evening, just before going to bed. Then I could reflect on the day and look for things that went well, or things that I appreciated, or things that maybe I took for granted, but here as I consciously thought about it, I could see that they were worthy of gratitude as well.
At first it was difficult because I was looking for big things. I would have been grateful to have my depression lifted. I would have been grateful to not be in financial crisis. I would have been grateful to have some sense of hopefulness for the future. But none of that was in the offing any time soon, so what was there to be grateful for? The therapist pointed me toward less troubling, perhaps more mundane concepts. Was I ambulatory? Yes. Did I still have a roof over my head? Yes. Was I in a position to get help for my depression, whether I thought it was working or not? Yes. Well, there, I had my first three things to list.
As the days went on, it got much easier. After all, I wasn’t being asked to be “happy” about how my life was going. I started out viewing it as an exercise in finding things that weren’t as bad as they could be. So I am able to walk. So are most people. But I get to be one of those people who are blessed with sound legs. It could be worse. And so I could choose to acknowledge that and be grateful.
Oftentimes I would write the same items each day. Every day I could feel gratitude for having my cats as companions, so they were perpetually on my list. That’s okay. I was able to experience and acknowledge appreciation for them anew each day. Then I began to challenge myself to find something different each day. And then it became kind of uplifting to think about things to put on my list, and I could often easily come up with more than five items to write down.
Studies have shown that feelings of gratitude can positively affect one’s depression. In an article by Jeffrey Rossman PhD, entitled “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor: You Can Buy Happiness, but Not with Money,” found on Rodale.com, a study performed by Martin Seligman, PhD, and associates is described. In the study, Seligman and his colleagues worked with 50 visitors to a self-help website who were determined to be severely depressed. The participants were instructed to spend some time each day writing down three things that went well on that day, and why.
Rossman reports that within 15 days, "94 percent of the 50 individuals reported feeling significantly less depressed. Their scores on a widely used depression inventory dropped by 50 percent—equivalent to improvement seen with medication treatment or psychotherapy, although the latter interventions generally take longer to work.” These positive effects for the participants were still present six months later.
Those are pretty impressive results. Unfortunately, I stopped keeping my journal. Out of laziness, I guess, or passivity. But my current therapist has asked me to reinstate the practice. Despite my recent downturn and negativity, I am looking forward to taking on a gratitude journal again. I know from experience that it helps. It’s easy, doesn’t take much time, and it gives me a much better perspective on life.
So for today I am grateful for being able to write this blog, for those of you who read it, and – of course – for my cats.
What about you?