My freshman psychology professor believed that gratitude is the opposite of depression. Having fought through several years of clinical depression myself, I didn’t agree. Saying that gratitude is the opposite of depression seems to only support the fallacy that people who are battling depression are simply ungrateful. In reality, depression is a very real and debilitating illness, not a synonym for feeling greedy, entitled, or ungrateful.
This professor challenged me to force myself to look at my life and the world around me through a different lens. While there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support his theory that gratitude reverses depression – take Lyubomirsky and Sin’s 2009 study for example – my classmates and I experienced this transformation first-hand through a month-long project.
Each night before I went to sleep, I had to write down three positive experiences I had, things that I was thankful for, or a mix of both. These journal entries consisted of three sentences that were as simple as “I am grateful for…” or “I am glad that…”. I could acknowledge a specific experience or I could just write my thanks that I did not die today. The only rule was that I could not write about anything that compared my life to someone else’s. For example “I’m thankful that I have clean water since many people don’t,” was not allowed, as the point of the project was to simply appreciate, not to justify or force appreciation.
After a month of daily journaling, I found myself acknowledging positive things all around me without having to think about it. Even in the midst of the worst days, something good would stand out, no matter how little. While this practice has in no way cured my depression, it has become harder to give in to the dark pit of negativity when there are good things all around me. At the least, it makes daily life a little brighter.
Why does practicing gratitude have such an effect on depression? Actively thinking about positivity in your life releases hormones in your brain that play a big role in mood regulation. These neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, travel in pathways throughout the brain to activate pleasure centers and inhibit feelings of grief and worry.
I still don’t fully agree that gratitude is the opposite of depression. To me, it’s like saying that 10 p.m. is the opposite of morning; it may be true, but it’s only part of the equation. 10 p.m. is only one hour of the night, and gratitude is just one state of mind that generally doesn’t occur simultaneously with depression. It’s not to say that depressed people are ungrateful, but that the way of thinking with gratitude is about the opposite as you can get from the constant slippery slope of depression.
Fox, Glenn R., Jonas Kaplan, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio. “Neural Correlates of Gratitude.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (2015): n. pag. Web.
Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467–487. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19301241