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More PsychNotes: Happiness and Well-being

It's Not as Simple as Being Grateful
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

The current fad in psychology is positive psychology. People are told that peace of mind, well-being, and even improved health will come from journaling or expressing gratitude. Can these gratitude interventions be helpful? Certainly, but making it seem that such techniques can treat anxiety and depression may be a disservice to those who are truly suffering.

My concern about the emphasis on gratitude as a treatment for anxiety and depression is that it places a demand on people with mental illness. In other words, it can become another way of dismissing suffering and blaming the sufferer:

“You wouldn't be so depressed if you just expressed more gratitude!”

“All you need to do is journal what you are grateful for and that will change your life.”

“Focus on being grateful and you won't be so worried and anxious.”

A meta-analysis evaluating 32 published research studies (Davis, et al., 2016) has shown that gratitude interventions have a weak effect on well-being. This means that these techniques can be helpful to some degree especially for those who are minimally distressed and dealing with everyday problems. However, such techniques are not a substitute for other treatments for those with anxiety and depression.

Gratitude techniques are attractive as interventions because they are easy to understand and more pleasant to do than many other techniques thus increasing follow-through. Some therapists and others latch onto these techniques as if they are some new profound intervention when they are not. Such methods have been part of cognitive therapy for a long time. The difference is that cognitive therapy addresses the complexity of the situation. It doesn't provide a one-size-fits-all technique to solve problems.

The bottom-line is that gratitude interventions can be helpful for those with depression and anxiety as part of a larger plan of treatment. However, the weak effect indicates that it does not benefit everyone and should not be considered a panacea for all that ails people.

Davis, D.E., Choe, E., Meyers, J., Wade, N., Varjas, K., Gifford, A., Quinn, A., Hook, J.N., Van Tongeren, D.R., Griffin, B.J. and Worthington, Jr., E.L. (2016). Thankful for the Little Things: A Meta-Analysis of Gratitude Interventions. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2016, 63, 20 –31. DOI: 10.1037/cou0000107

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