Gratitude Exercises Don't Help With Depression or Anxiety

©. Natalie Board

Telling people to be grateful for what they have doesn't help alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety, according to new research.

Gratitude journals and other practices sound great on paper. Focusing on the good in one's life, it would seem, should boost our health and happiness. But according to a study from Ohio State University, such interventions had, at best, limited benefits for depression and anxiety.

I mean, it certainly can't hurt to be grateful and count your blessings, "Just don't think that a gratitude intervention will help you feel less depressed or anxious," say the researchers.

"For years now, we have heard in the media and elsewhere about how finding ways to increase gratitude can help make us happier and healthier in so many ways," said David Cregg, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State.

"But when it comes to one supposed benefit of these interventions – helping with symptoms of anxiety and depression – they really seem to have limited value."

The team analyzed results from 27 different studies that looked at the effectiveness of gratitude interventions on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. With 3,675 participants combined, the studies relied on gratitude tasks, like the "Three Good Things" exercise, in which a person writes down three things that went well for them during the day and reflects on them.

Many of the studies compared participants who had done gratitude interventions with those who did a similar task but not focused on gratitude. The University gives one example in which some participants did a gratitude journal, while the other group spent an equal amount of time writing about their class schedule.

The gratitude task was only marginally better at relieving anxiety and depression than the unrelated activity.

"There was a difference, but it was a small difference," said co-author Jennifer Cheavens. "It would not be something you would recommend as a treatment."

It's so interesting: We are always telling people with depression and anxiety to eat better, exercise more, have gratitude – but this research, says Cheavens, suggests that it isn't all that helpful to tell people to simply be more grateful.

"Based on our results, telling people who are feeling depressed and anxious to be more grateful likely won't result in the kind of reductions in depression and anxiety we would want to see," she said. "It might be that these sort of interventions, on their own, aren't powerful enough or that people have difficulty enacting them fully when they are feeling depressed and anxious."

This all isn't to say that gratitude is a bust; it definitely has its benefits and has been found to be effective at improving relationships.

"It is good to be more grateful – it has intrinsic virtue and there's evidence that people who have gratitude as a general trait have a lower incidence of mental health problems and better relationships," Cregg said.

The bottom line is this; if being grateful helps you, by all means, embrace those interventions. I practice gratitude all the time and I swear it makes me a better person. But for anyone looking specifically to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, don't feel badly if the nightly gratitude journal doesn't seem to help much.

"The problem is when we try to turn gratefulness into a self-help tool," says Cregg. "Gratitude can't fix everything."