If you’re experiencing depression, understanding how to be grateful has nothing to do with hiding how you’re feeling — and everything to do with helping improve the symptoms of depression.
If you feel depressed, you may worry your loved ones are annoyed with your low mood, don’t understand why you want to be alone, or think you’re being ungrateful for the blessings in your life.
Learning how to express gratitude when you’re feeling depressed isn’t about hiding depression. You can be grateful and not have to put on a happy mask.
Faking a smile for the sake of others won’t make depression go away, but practicing gratitude when you’re depressed can help train your brain to seek the positive rather than the negative.
Gratitude is both a feeling and a gesture. It’s an acknowledgment and appreciation for something that’s enriched your life.
It isn’t always easy to express gratitude, and sometimes it might take some searching for you to find a reason to feel grateful.
Even when you’re feeling depressed, it’s possible to practice gratitude with some simple tips.
1. You don’t have to feel it to do it
If you wait to feel gratitude while experiencing depression, you might never actively practice it.
The good news is, according to Kevin Coleman, a marriage and family therapist from Columbia, South Carolina, you don’t have to feel it to do it.
“Practicing gratitude when you’re feeling depressed can feel robotic or like you don’t really mean it, and that’s okay,” he says. “These times are actually the most important times to practice gratitude because you’re intentionally focusing your thoughts on helpful things, which will help bring you out of that depression.”
2. Attaching motivation
Coleman adds that expressing gratitude doesn’t mean you’re being complacent or apathetic toward challenges in your life.
If you’re concerned expressing gratitude will keep you stuck in unhelpful habits, attaching gratitude to motivation can help.
For example, saying, “I have a headache, but I’m grateful to coping techniques that can help me manage and relieve my symptoms,” allows you to express gratitude and see progress toward an overarching goal.
3. Starting small
Knowing how to be grateful when you feel depressed doesn’t have to come in through big gestures.
“Start small,” advises Dr. Cristina Louk, a humanistic psychotherapist from Monroe, Washington. “You don’t have to do a grand gesture of gratitude to reap the benefits of experiencing gratitude.”
She says, “All it takes is that one first step. You can do that now with me by finishing the sentence, ‘Today, I am grateful for…’ If that felt good, do it again.”
4. The gratitude letter
Writing can be a powerful tool for expressing emotions and clarifying thoughts. When you want to discover or express gratitude, writing a letter may help.
“One of the most well-researched ways of expressing gratitude is through a gratitude letter,” says Dr. Carly Hunt, a counseling psychologist and researcher at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “The holiday season may be a perfect time to do this. Write a letter to someone you’re grateful to, and deliver it to them.”
If you’re not ready to have your thoughts read by others, you may consider writing your letter or reasons for gratitude down in a journal instead.
5. Being creative
Consider saying “thank you” when you aren’t feeling it may feel disingenuous. If you aren’t comfortable saying “thank you” at the moment, you can find other ways to express your gratitude.
“In this case, get a card, flowers, or swing by their favorite coffee shop and order their favorite, or write a handwritten note,” suggests Anita Astley, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Clifton Park, New York.
6. Focusing on the present moment
Being present in the moment, also known as mindfulness, can help you look at the details around you; the small things you might not have noticed, you have to be grateful for.
At any given moment, you might be experiencing the warmth of a home, a meal of quality food, fresh air, and sunshine, or clean drinking water.
These are all things that are often taken for granted because they’re always present, but they’re still things to be grateful for.
Yes. Learning how to be grateful when feeling depressed can help improve symptoms of depression.
“Thinking, feeling, and expressing gratitude through words and behavior activate various regions of the brain that reinforce overall mental well-being,” explains Astley.
She adds that expressions of gratitude directly impact the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus, which serves to regulate emotions and the release of hormones, in addition to various other functions.
Until recently, the research on gratitude in regard to depression was limited to individual studies, albeit many, over the last few decades. The majority of these supported a positive link between gratitude and lower rates of depression.
In 2021, a 62-article meta-analysis on the subject was conducted to fill the research gap, involving data from more than 26,000 people of all ages.
The overall findings supported what was noticed in individual research: the more gratitude people experienced, the lower their rates of depression.
Other benefits of expressing gratitude
The potential benefits of expressing gratitude aren’t limited to depression.
According to a 2019 review on the link between gratitude and health, gratitude can be beneficial for a number of social and emotional components of well-being, including:
- meaning in life
- post-traumatic growth
- subjective well-being
- life satisfaction
- strengthened relationships
Expressing gratitude may also help bring you back to a positive mindset and a state of calm, helping reduce stress and anxiety.
“Expressing gratitude can also help calm your anxious feelings because rather than thinking about all the ways that things in your life could go poorly, we can think about the times in the past when things have gone well,” says Coleman.
He indicates this process can help you be more thankful for things in the past and more optimistic about what’s to come.
In many situations, a “thank you” is all it takes to express gratitude. But when you aren’t feeling grateful, expressing thanks verbally may feel uncomfortable.
If you’re not in a situation where you need to immediately respond to a gift or gesture, there are plenty of other ways you can show gratitude, such as:
- a thank you card/letter
- an act of kindness (e.g., grabbing someone a coffee while you’re out)
- helping with tasks
- giving out compliments
- being an active listener
- actively cheer and celebrate others
When someone gives you a gift, and you don’t feel grateful, you don’t have to default to “thank you.”
Other phrases may feel more natural, such as:
- “This was so thoughtful!”
- “You always know just what to get me.”
- “This will be so helpful.”
- “You have the best taste in (item).”
- “I really needed one of these.”
- “This will look perfect on my desk.”
- “My office really needed this to brighten it up.”
Making eye contact and offering a smile can help these statements feel genuine. Still feel uncomfortable? Practicing at home in the mirror may help!
Finding how to be grateful when you feel depressed can be a challenge, but practicing gratitude may help the symptoms of depression.
Journaling, practicing mindful gratitude, and exploring alternative ways to show you’re grateful, can all help you make gratitude more present in your life.