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Is the 'Gratitude Movement' Overrated? Study Finds It Has Limits

TUESDAY, March 17, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Can a self-help strategy built on daily expressions of gratitude keep depression and anxiety at bay? Don't count on it, researchers say.

That's the takeaway from a review of 27 studies involving nearly 3,700 participants. Each study focused on the impact of so-called "gratitude interventions" -- such as "Three Good Things," in which people reflect on three things that went well that day, or a "gratitude visit," in which a person writes a thank you letter and reads it aloud.

The conclusion: Neither self-help strategy did much to help participants feel less anxious or depressed.

"Ultimately, I think these results suggest that depression and anxiety are complex indeed," said study co-author David Cregg, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Ohio State University. "And giving individuals simple exercises to try to feel more positive or express more gratitude may not be the best advice."

All 27 studies asked participants to engage in the "Three Good Things" exercise, a "gratitude visit" or a similar activity. Roughly 2,000 participants did so. A control group of about 1,650 engaged in activities not focused on showing gratitude.

Only two studies included participants who had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or who were actively seeking treatment. Cregg, who worked with Ohio State professor Jennifer Cheavens, noted that about half did include participants who were struggling with "clinically relevant" symptoms of depression.

Either way, gratitude exercises alone did not appear to be effective treatments for symptoms of either depression or anxiety, he said.

That's not to say that an attitude of gratitude isn't good for you.

Cregg stressed that his study did not examine how a grateful disposition affected depression or anxiety -- only on the specific impact of gratitude intervention exercises. Other research has suggested that people who are generally more grateful do face a lower risk for mental health problems and are more likely to have a positive sense of well-being.

"One nuance I want to be sure to communicate is that our study does not indicate gratitude has no value," Cregg said, describing himself as "very pro-gratitude." "There is a great deal of evidence that individuals who are higher in the trait of gratitude have flourishing lives."

The problem, he said, comes when we "tell individuals to express gratitude in order to feel good and happy, rather than expressing gratitude for its own sake. For individuals dealing with depression and anxiety, that sort of 'feel good-ism' may backfire."

Kit Yarrow, a professor emeritus of psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, couldn't agree more.

"Suggesting to someone suffering from anxiety or depression that their psychological state can be fixed by gratitude exercises is simplistic, and potentially harmful, in that it minimizes the extent of their pain," she said Yarrow, who wasn't involved with the study.

When it comes to effectively tackling depression and anxiety, she said "therapy, and possibly medication, will be more helpful."

The findings appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies.

More information

Learn more about depression risk at U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

SOURCES: David Cregg, doctoral candidate, Mood and Personality Studies Lab, Ohio State University, Columbus; Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., professor emeritus, psychology, Golden Gate University, San Francisco; Journal of Happiness Studies, February 2020

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