During active appreciation the threatening messages from your amygdala [fear center of the brain] and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.
Other studies have also highlighted how gratitude can buffer you from the blues, protect you from illness, and heal your neuroses.
You Can Be Depressed and Grateful
While I believe gratitude can definitely contribute to emotional resilience and promote wellness, I disagree with Baker that you can’t be depressed and grateful at the same time.
Why? Even in my most severe depressive episodes, I was always cognizant of my blessings and appreciated the good things in my life. In fact, a section of my daily mood journal is dedicated to listing all the things I am grateful for each day. This exercise helps to create new grooves, or neural passageways, that lead to healing; however, it doesn’t have the horsepower to abort the brain entirely and start from scratch with a purely optimistic outlook.
Gratitude isn’t always the magical antidote that positive psychologists and celebrities like Oprah claim it to be.
When Gratitude Backfires
Sometimes gratitude can actually backfire, explains Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a psychologist in private practice in Arkansas. For persons with Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD), a kind of depression where someone creates the façade of everything going well in his or her life, showing gratitude only contributes to the problem.
In her blog When Gratitude Backfires, Dr. Rutherford writes:
When [gratitude] has an intense, driven, being on a treadmill quality, with the speed slowly being turned up, and up, and up, and up. It can be tremendously self-destructive….It’s not that it’s insincere. It’s very real. But the giver is in pain that she or he isn’t talking about, and showing gratitude becomes a performance itself. The gratitude backfires.
Don’t Fake It
We’ve been told to fake it until we make it, but forced gratitude doesn’t seem to be any help to depression. In one study published in the Journal of Personal and Emotional Psychology in January 2001, two researchers at the University of California in Berkeley inspected yearbook photos from 1958 and 1960.
They distinguished genuine smiles from false smiles (the two smiles activate different muscle groups). Thirty years later, the students with the genuine smiles were found to be faring much better than those with the fake smiles: The genuine smilers had more satisfying marriages, greater feelings of well-being, and so forth.
Mindfulness and Emotional Agility
For those of us who battle chronic depression, I think it’s important to know that 1) we can be grateful and depressed at the same time, and 2) it’s okay not to be grateful. For me and for many others I know, it is much more helpful to approach feelings and thoughts with mindfulness — simply acknowledging them in a loving way and trying to stay present in the moment — or with emotional agility, allowing ourselves to feel our emotions, than to force any kind of optimism or positive psychology.
Gratitude may come.
And it may not come.
Either way, we are okay.