Giving Thanks – Even When You’re Depressed

Last week, I had a long-distance phone chat with a fellow depressive. She brought up the topic of gratefulness and how that helped her deal with her depression. Since it’s also helped me, let’s talk about it. My Polish grandmother used to say, “Count your blessings.” I think most lawyers put an odd twist on that bit of wisdom: “Count your problems.”  We lawyers sit at lunch and commiserate about the variety, amount and significance of the stresses that dog us. Rarely do we ever have a chat about the blessings in our day or lives.

People who are suffering from depression rarely get a break from the negative self-talk running through their minds. To make matters worse, they may be surrounded by other grumpy lawyers who hate their lives, jobs or both (who may or may not suffer from depression). What can we do about this? We need to put in place practices or habits that mitigate against these corrosive influences. One way, is to start a gratitude practice – yes practice! There is research which shows that people who began ‘gratitude journals’ report higher levels of enthusiasm, optimism and energy and experienced less depression.  We dont’ need to judge or dismiss our pessimistic friends, but we do need to recognize that such negativity will very likely only feed our depression.  So, it not about them.  It’s about us and what is good for us.

In his book, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons describes gratitude as a two part process. First, it’s a process of the acknowledgement of the goodness in our lives. Second, it is the recognition that the sources of such goodness exist, “at least partially,” outside of ourselves. He says it’s an awareness that we are on the receiving end of goodness and that the ‘giver’ acted intentionally for our own benefit. This can be so helpful because depression is inner focused and self focused whereas gratitude is an outward projection. By focusing on gratitude, we become aware of the positive aspects of our lives which can affect our very outlook on life.

Buy a journal, it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Throughout the day, make mental notes of the small things you are happy for. Write them down as you observe them or later when it is more convenient. Personally, I put a three by five index card in my shirt pocket. I pull it out throughout the day and note positive things as they unfold. It’s very important to start with small things such as, “The air smelled great driving to work in the morning.” This is so because depressives ignore life’s beauty and tender mercies – even when they are right under their noses.

After we have made a habit of noting the small, ordinarily overlooked blessings in our life, the more substantial gifts such as, “I have a great family” will be easier to recognize and record. Do something to be kind to yourself today. Start a gratitude journal.

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