Few would argue against being grateful for the good things in your life. But based on a recent study, you shouldn’t expect a gratitude intervention to help you feel less depressed or anxious.
Researchers at The Ohio State University (OSU) analyzed results from 27 studies that examined the effectiveness of gratitude interventions on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. The results showed that such interventions had limited benefits at best.
“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 OSU. “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.”
Cregg conducted the study with Jennifer Cheavens, PhD, associate professor of psychology at OSU. Their results were published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
In many studies, participants who did gratitude interventions were compared with people who performed a similar activity that was unrelated to gratitude. For example, instead of writing about what they were grateful about, a college student sample might write about their class schedule.
The gratitude intervention was not much better at relieving anxiety and depression than the seemingly unrelated activity.
“There was a difference, but it was a small difference,” Cheavens said. “It would not be something you would recommend as a treatment.”
As an alternative, Cheavens and Cregg recommended people pursue treatments that have been shown to be effective with anxiety and depression, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
The results suggest that it isn’t helpful to tell people with symptoms of depression or anxiety to simply be more grateful for the good things they have, Cheavens said.
“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.”
The results don’t mean that there are no benefits to being grateful or to using gratitude interventions, the researchers said. In fact, some studies show that such interventions are 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 problem is when we try to turn gratefulness into a self-help tool. Gratitude can’t fix everything.”
This article was adapted from information provided by OSU.