|Catholic Therapist on Virtue and Mental Health
By Genevieve Pollock
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, 26 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)
Gratitude transforms a negative self-focus into a positive
other-focus, strengthening relationships with God and others, says
therapist Eric Gudan.
Gudan is a senior clinical extern at Alpha Omega Clinic and Counseling
Services, and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for the
Psychological Sciences, a Catholic graduate school of psychology.
In this interview, Gudan spoke with ZENIT about his experience and study
of how the virtue of gratitude may counteract the effects of depression.
Q: What, from your psychological perspective, defines the virtue of
gratitude? What characteristics can be seen in a grateful person?
Gudan: Gratitude is the positive emotional experience resulting from the
recognition that another person has given you a benefit.
Gratitude is a positive moral affect. In other words, it is a pleasant
feeling arising from the good action another has done to you, from
judging that it has been good for you.
Almost everyone has experienced gratitude and regards it favorably, but
some people are more grateful than others.
A more grateful individual will experience gratitude toward more people,
for more events, more deeply, and for a longer period of time.
Multiple studies have shown that gratitude can inspire people to "pay it
forward," responding to the gift of a good deed by giving another person
the gift of a good deed, in addition to another gift returned to the
Thus, a grateful person is sensitive to gifts and goodness in the world.
He sees good things around him and it lifts him up, moving him to action
Q: What effect can the virtue of gratitude have on our mental health?
What does the lack of gratitude do to our psychology?
Gudan: Studies have shown that most people upon making an expression of
gratitude found that it contributed to feeling "extremely happy" or
A growing number of studies have linked gratitude with higher general
feelings of happiness and have found that more grateful persons are more
satisfied with life. This includes people who may not necessarily feel
grateful, but attempt to arrive at the virtue by mental exercises such
as thinking about the gifts that they received.
Thus, whenever you feel grateful you are happier, and when you practice
gratitude you are happier.
Q: In particular, how can the virtue of gratitude affect the life of
someone who struggles with depression?
Gudan: Depression is a complicated thing, an inter-related web of
multiple causes and consequences involving genetics, brain chemistry,
attitudes, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. It is difficult
for psychologists to distinguish what is the cause and what is the
consequence of the various aspects of depression.
However, one way of confronting depression is seeing the power that
negative attitudes have upon our experience of the world and our
relationships, affecting our behaviors and ultimately even our brain
Depressed persons generally have a negative attitude and are frustrated
with all the bad things that are happening to them. They feel like "they
just can't get a break, that they just can't get what they want."
This negative attitude becomes a filter that focuses and amplifies all
the bad things that happen.
For some reason, it is far easier for us to remember bad things that
have happened to us rather than good things. Depressed persons think
that "they are getting a raw deal from life and just don't have the
ability to get what they want."
Gratitude, on the other hand, is the uplifting feeling resulting from
the recognition that another person has done something good for us.
Instead of a negative self-focus, gratitude has a positive other-focus.
Furthermore, gratitude naturally pushes us to act. Depressed persons
have difficulty focusing and mustering the energy to do much of
Gratitude helps us to be altruistic, which has multiple positive
Q: Sometimes, a person who is depressed has trouble taking that "first
step" toward getting better. What is the "first step" toward the virtue
Gudan: Yes, depression can be like a dark cloud that darkens thought and
makes all movements sluggish. Little sparks of gratitude seem
insufficient to start a blaze of positive activity in this damp
However, I believe gratitude acts in a positive spiral. The depressed
person can start by simply attempting to recognize gifts from others in
order to begin to feel more grateful.
The "fake it 'till you make it" can be very effective.
But you asked me about the first step. Gratitude is not a "Pollyanna-ish"
rose-colored glass that makes all of our problems go away.
The depressed person should not expect that feeling grateful will,
overnight, turn around his negative attitudes or habits that his
depression has been pushing him into for weeks.
First, I would tell someone to take realistic stock of where he is.
Yes, life is not as good as you would like. Yes, there are things you
don't like about it. But this attitude simply leaves you less motivated
and less happy. Would you like to try a different way to look at things?
Then, I would propose gratitude exercises, to build the virtue of
gratitude by repeated practice. Again, although gratitude will not solve
all your problems, it does help you see the problems in perspective as
well as hidden resources and benefits.
Since the depressed person usually has weak gratitude muscles, it will
take some building up to feel gratitude more easily, more often, and
But it is definitely something we can get better at and will make us
happier if we do. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a well-respected researcher on
happiness, has theorized that while external circumstances and genetics
account for a good portion of our happiness, 40% of our happiness is
totally within our control.
A first exercise that I would recommend is keeping a gratitude journal
every day for a week, and then once a week after that.
Simply list three things you are grateful for, and the person
responsible. Allow yourself to feel positively because of these little
benefits, which could be as small as a chance encounter with an old
friend, the beauty of a sunset, or dinner made for you.
Another exercise that is particularly powerful is a gratitude visit.
Reflect upon someone in your past who has significantly helped you, such
as a teacher, whom you have never really explicitly thanked. Then, write
that person a letter. For maximum benefit, deliver the letter in person.
Q: Do you think that the virtues are a cure for depression, or any other
Gudan: I think that gratitude builds up the resources that help a person
out of depression. It should not be seen as a cure for everyone, but it
is helpful for anyone.
Gratitude improves a person's relationships with the human community and
even with God so she can receive strength from others, including another
person as well as the divine Person.
Furthermore, I believe it improves the person's resiliency so that
circumstances that would otherwise start a depression do not overcome
Tough times will come and the person will not always be euphoric, but
gratitude is a personal characteristic that anyone can work on to feel
better and be better.
A grateful person is more psychologically healthy. Building virtues
like gratitude is the psychological equivalent to eating healthier and
getting more exercise; character strengths make us psychologically
stronger and help us to flourish.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is feeling "down" in a
particular way around the holidays?
Gudan: Sometimes, a person might think she is obliged to feel thankful.
Thanksgiving day, for example, may make people feel guilty for not being
The holidays, when everyone seems to be so very happy, may augment the
negative focus and push the person to think that he is somehow defective
for not being more grateful or happy.
While gratitude is a very healthy attitude to increase, I would clarify
the emotional from the cognitive components.
If you have received a gift but it still does not cheer you up, there is
something else going on. You may have other concerns which are
preventing you from seeing the gift as good as it is or you may judge
that there are strings attached to this gift.
Indebtedness, the negative emotion arising from the reception of a gift,
is not gratitude. If a person judges that the other gave the gift so
that he would be in the benefactor's debt, it is easy to see why that
would not cheer up the indebted individual.
Sometimes emotions can be so strong as to make it difficult to sort
through what is going on in these interpersonal relationships. In these
circumstances it sometimes requires the help of a therapist to see
relationships as they are.
While some people do not give totally altruistically, most people do not
give in a completely selfish way, either. It might help to ask: Is there
any modicum of generosity that I can look at from this gift I have
When it is difficult to see any goodness in the action, our faith can
help us to see things in a greater perspective.
Some saints have been able to feel gratitude toward their persecutors,
at times, because the sufferings they endured allowed them to show their
love for God. With this perspective then, it can help to consider
something like: Is it possible to "reframe" the situation of the person
who cut me off in traffic as an opportunity to learn patience?
In a more general way, every person that exists is a gift for you.
Starting, of course, with you.
You did not have to exist, but God chose to give you the gift of life.
Any other benefit you may possibly have, including eternal life in
heaven, is possible because you have been given existence. Have an
attitude of "gift" to see the good things that have been given to you.
We have been created to love and be loved. There is a way to consider
every person you come into contact with as a gift, an opportunity to
love in order to become the person you were made to be.
In addition, any love that you have experienced through another person
is a gift. Thus, with this attitude, there is always something to be
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On the Net:
Alpha Omega Clinic and Counseling Services: www.aoccs.org
Institute for the Psychological Sciences: www.ipsciences.edu