3 Gratitude Exercises to Lessen Depression and Anxiety

3 Gratitude Exercises to Lessen Depression and Anxiety
3 Gratitude Exercises to Lessen Depression and Anxiety

Studies show that the ability to experience a happier, less stressful life is often tied to one’s ability to give thanks. That means genuinely acknowledging that which one is grateful for, and doing so overtly. Not just in your head. But outright.

Yet, that can be a challenge. When events in our life are difficult, or we don’t get what we need or want, our thoughts can be dark and negative, and our emotions follow suit. And when w­­e’re down, disappointed, angry or afraid, the skill of gratitude is not a habit we usually turn to.

So it takes an intentional, conscious effort to exercise gratitude. In other words, we need to make this a habit. A bit of practice begins to change our outlook on life. The hurts don’t last as long or feel as deep. We can begin to see life more broadly, with more acceptance of ourselves and everything around us. Joy is more likely. We love ourselves, others and life more.

Sounds too good? Well, try an experiment. Below are three ways to develop the skill and habit of gratitude. Choose at least one of these practices to start.

1. Count Your Blessings

We’re designed, some believe, to remember the bad over the good. It’s helpful for the survival of the species…ensuring that we don’t repeat mistakes that could be life-threatening.

Unfortunately, dialed up too high, we forget to notice that even on bad days, good things happen too—we’re just less likely to notice them.

So practice the Three Good Things or Gratitude Journal exercises. Simply spend 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each day writing in detail about three things that went well that day, large or small, and also describing why you think they happened. At least one 2005 study showed that this exercise increased happiness for those that tried the practice.

Why does this work? First, we get to recall a more balanced picture of our day, and we get hope and happiness as we appreciate the good in our life. Second, we develop the skill of paying attention and watching for the good. The day just gets better when we can see the good as well as the not so good.

2. Mental Subtraction

A series of 2008 studies  found that the Mental Subtraction of Positive Events exercise is another effective way to build the gratitude skill.

In it, you recall something positive that happened in your life—i.e., a good job, meeting a special friend, an educational achievement. You write down how it came about, and all the ways in which it might never have happened. It’s a bit like the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Ask yourself, “what would my life be like if things hadn’t worked out this way?”

It’s a chance to realize just how many gifts you’ve received and start a new awareness about how in many ways, lady luck has smiled on you too.

(A variation on this exercise is Mental Subtraction of Relationships, which involves focusing specifically on important relationships, and feel more grateful for those.)

3. Say “thank you”

Gratitude gets real when it gets said out loud to someone else. It creates connection, and it becomes an act of generosity as the other is validated and esteemed. The gesture can be small, that’s fine, but hopefully more than just a quick “thanks pal”.

So try this: a thoughtful, detailed Gratitude Letter.  Choose someone in your life who perhaps you haven’t let know what they mean to you. What also makes this powerful is that as you write, your feelings of gratitude and happiness will increase. You’ll recall that you too are fortunate some of the time.

Write it, deliver it, and even read it to the recipient for optimum results. Again, the 2005 study tested the effects of writing and delivering a gratitude letter, and this practice had the greatest positive impact on happiness one month later.

Get Support to Feel Better

So, are you willing to develop the gratitude aptitude? If it’s time for professional support so that skills like gratitude can help you heal, please read about treatment for depression and anxiety, and consider coming to counseling. You can reach me at (914) 768-3740, or via email to set an appointment.


  • by


    Posted August 11, 2015 8:30 pm

    This is really useful. Thank you!

  • by

    Lori mckinney

    Posted August 12, 2015 2:04 am

    This is wonderful. I’m going to try it. Thanks

    • by Aaron Deri Posted August 12, 2015 9:05 am

      Thank you Lori, please let me know what you learn when you try one of the techniques. – Aaron Deri, LMFT

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