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Gratitude exercises do not reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression, study finds

Researchers recommend that people seek out treatments with a proven track record, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Gratitude exercises appear to only modestly improve our psychological well-being
Gratitude exercises appear to only modestly improve our psychological well-being, the study reports.
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Practicing gratitude — regularly taking time to reflect on the goodness or good things in one’s life — has little if any effect on reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

That’s not to say we don’t benefit in other ways from counting our blessings. Research has shown, for example, that practicing gratitude can help us connect more with other people, leading to closer and more satisfying romantic relationships and friendships.

But gratitude exercises — including “Three Good Things,” the widespread practice of writing down each day three things that went well — appear to only modestly improve our psychological well-being, the study reports.

“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,” says David Cregg, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State University, in a released statement.

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“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,” he adds.

More than two dozen studies

For the study, Cregg and co-author Jennifer Cheavens, a professor of psychology at Ohio State, reviewed data from 27 previous studies that had examined the effectiveness of gratitude interventions on reducing anxiety and depression. The studies involved more than 3,600 people, most of whom were women. Participants’ ages ranged from 19 to 69, but the average age across all the studies was 32.

All the studies compared people who engaged in some kind of gratitude intervention with a “control” group. The interventions in the studies that were reviewed mostly involved some version of either the “Three Good Things” daily exercise or a “Gratitude Letter” (having people write a letter thanking someone who has made a difference in their life and then having them read it to that person).

In nine of the studies, the control group consisted of people who were told they were on a waitlist for an intervention. In the other 18 studies, the control group was assigned a neutral task (one that had nothing to do with gratitude), such as writing about that day’s class schedule (if they were students).

After crunching all the data, the researchers concluded that the gratitude interventions were only marginally better at relieving anxiety and depression than the control activities.

“There was a difference, but it was a small difference,” says Jennifer Cheavens, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychology at Ohio State. “It would not be something you would recommend as a treatment.”

She and Cregg point out that some of the previous studies that found gratitude interventions beneficial for anxiety and depression had included control groups that were not given a neutral task, but instead a task that may have increased symptoms of psychological distress. One study asked the control group to list daily hassles, for example, while another asked them to list things they had been unable to accomplish over the previous summer.

“Relying on control conditions that may have effects in the opposite direction of the gratitude intervention (i.e., increasing symptoms of distress or reducing well-being) may inflate the effect size estimate [for the intervention],” they point out.

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Limitations and implications

The current study comes with caveats. Most notably, the participants in almost all of the studies reviewed were not selected for the severity of their symptoms. In fact, only two studies included people who had been clinically diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

It could be — as previous research has suggested — that gratitude interventions have a greater effect on reducing symptoms in people with a diagnosed depressive disorder.

Still, one thing is clear from the current study’s findings: Simply telling people who feel depressed and anxious to be more grateful is not going to be helpful.

“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,” says Cheavens.

She and Cregg recommend that people seek out instead treatments with a proven track record, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

“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,” says Cregg. “The problem is when we try to turn gratefulness into a self-help tool.”

“Gratitude can’t fix everything,” he adds.

FMI: You can read an abstract of the study on the website for the Journal of Happiness Studies, but the full paper is behind a paywall.