Response: William McKenna, M.S.; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities
Question: How does gratitude help me day to day? I have heard a lot about how practicing gratitude helps with depression but I don’t know how to practice it in an effective way.
Great question! Gratitude is a powerful antidote to depressive thoughts and feelings for a number of reasons, many of which I am sure you know. Possessing only an abstract understanding of gratitude makes putting it into practice difficult. A famous Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Massieu, wrote that “gratitude is the memory of the heart.” Basically, he means that taking note of, and remembering, the things that we have been blessed with is the practical way of being grateful. It is being mindful of the daily things that cause us to smile or that make our lives a little better. I hope that at least some of the following recommendations will help you better live out gratitude in your daily life.
- Be grateful the moment you wake up for the fact that you got to wake up today. Every day is a gift and we never know how many we have left.
- Be grateful that you have a working body. Go through each bodily organ and thank God that it works properly.
- Be grateful that you have food in the refrigerator and pantry. There are a lot of people who go hungry each day all around the world (around 795 million people, or about 1 in 9 individuals).
- Be grateful that you have electricity and running water. Around 1.2 billion people in the world do not have that power and around 783 million people in the world do not have the convenience of water that runs right out of tap for them. In addition, 663 million people (about 1 in 10 people around the world) do not have access to clean water.
- Be grateful that you have access to transportation (whether it is a personal vehicle or public). Even people in our first world country do not have access to easy transport and have to walk long distances.
I could go on and on, but I am sure you understand that my point is that you should look at your everyday life and recognize the small things that you often take for granted. As a society, we tend to focus on what we do not have instead of what we do have.
Psychologically, this comparison is a version of the ‘tyranny of the shoulds,’ where we constantly focus on what we lack instead of focusing on the good things we have and do in life. Daily gratitude will help you focus more on the present, and how you can find happiness with what you do have and who you are, instead of becoming upset and bitter over what you lack and who you think you should become. Even things as simple as a beautiful day or the lady at the grocery store who let you go first in the checkout line can be little opportunities to practice gratitude.
Another tidbit that I’d like to offer to you is the idea that one of the best ways to practice gratitude is to do something about it. Turn the moments when you realize how many blessings you have into an opportunity to perform an act of charity. I don’t mean that every time you think about how blessed you are to have running water you should go and pay for someone else’s water bill (though that would be very generous of you!). This can be done in an extremely simple way. Mother Teresa said “every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Smile at your neighbor. Take a moment to say hello to the barista who makes your morning coffee. Turn your own gratitude into an opportunity for someone else to be grateful as well.
Finally, in no way am I claiming that going through a daily gratitude exercise will make your depression completely abate. It is possible for the depression to subside with consisting expressions of gratitude, but, if you haven’t already, it would be prudent to consult a therapist for psychotherapy, along with your primary care physician for the appropriate psychotropic medication. I can promise that having an “attitude of gratitude” will help you to have a much more positive outlook on your life. Sometimes even taking two minutes in the morning to remind yourself to see the little blessings throughout the day can completely change your entire day.