A Therapist’s Success Story and the Science He Followed to Manage Seasonal Depression
In another winter funk, I began a search for well-being and happiness tools.
As a therapist and person who has experienced bouts of melancholy and seasonal affective disorder, I have found ways to manage my own depression and to help clients. These approaches have included changing negative self-talk, strengthening interpersonal connections, engaging in outdoor activity, and mindfulness meditation.
While I experimented with and benefited from these practices throughout my life, I still dealt with seasonal depression in the wintertime.
Shorter, darker days did me in.
So, in late winter of 2016, after another period of lingering sadness and emotional funkiness, I found the impetus to explore the field of positive psychology.
Positive psychology is often defined as the “scientific study of what makes life worth living” (Peterson, 2018), or in simpler terms, the science of happiness. It is a new branch within psychology that was introduced in the 90’s by Dr. Martin Seligman, the president of the American Psychological Association.
Positive psychology, though young in its evolution, has blossomed into a thriving field with research focused on all dimensions of the science of well-being, including compassion, acts of kindness, forgiveness, resilience, meaning, purpose, connection, and gratitude. Out of all this research, I was drawn to three components of positive psychology - connection, meaning and gratitude. After several weeks of investigation and brainstorming, I decided to craft a year-long project to help me practice these concepts on a regular basis.
Before implementing my project in January of 2017, I began sharing the outline of my year and what I wanted to accomplish with colleagues and friends. As I mentioned earlier, my original plan involved a year of well-being, which included daily positive psychology interventions, weekly discussions with others about meaning and purpose, and monthly gratitude visits. After the first month of my depression prevention venture, I determined to focus solely on my practice of gratitude visits, which ironically also resulted in feeling greater meaning in life and connection with others.
The Gratitude Visit
Seligman’s research (remember? the guy who started positive psychology) found that writing, delivering, and reading a letter of gratitude to someone (the gratitude visit) can boost mood, enrich relationship connections, and increase meaning in life for up to a month after the visit (Seligman, 2011). During my 2017 project, I personally delivered and read letters of gratitude every month for a year to family and friends across the United States. I also tracked my emotional state and experience through journal entries along the way.
Spoiler Alert: Writing and delivering these letters changed my life in ways I hoped for but didn’t expect.
In this post, I will provide a broad overview of the research on the benefits of gratitude, different types and practices of gratitude, and the limits of gratitude. In my e-book (coming out later this year, hopefully), an extended version of this post, I also provide more examples of gratitude letters that I wrote over the year to demonstrate the process and practice of gratitude as a positive intervention. As an addendum to the e-book, I also include additional examples of letters at the various stages of writing and suggestions for crafting meaningful letters of your own.
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude has risen in popularity and impact as one of the most effective psychological and spiritual practices for enhancing overall well-being.
Robert Emmons, a prominent gratitude researcher, affirms that gratitude has one of the strongest connections to well-being and life satisfaction even when compared to other positive virtues, such as optimism or compassion.
The benefits of gratitude seem endless. According to Emmons, numerous studies have revealed that the practice of gratitude leads to:
· Increased feelings of energy, alertness, and vigor
· Success in achieving personal goals
· Better coping with stress
· Greater sense of purpose and resilience
· Solidified and secure social relationships
· Bolstered feelings of self-worth and self-confidence
· Generosity and helpfulness
Dr. Phillip Watkins, another preeminent gratitude guru, does provide caveats, and a counterbalance, to the practice of gratitude, however. He writes: “It’s important to note that most of these studies are investigating the relationship of well-being variables with trait gratitude… we’re not just looking at the good of an occasional feeling of gratitude…these are really relationships with a lifestyle of gratitude, a life orientation toward gratitude.”
In other words, you won’t reap the full super-powered benefits of gratitude if you only try a gratitude visit or positive psychology exercise one time. There needs to be a life-change around gratitude, which only comes with longer lasting or continual practice. This is why daily practices are good primers or launching pads for long-term happiness projects like I committed to for a year – so that you can make it a lifestyle or life orientation change.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, what drove me to conceptualize and implement my gratitude visit project was not only the research that showed that I could increase my well-being by developing a lifestyle of gratitude but also studies suggesting that practicing gratitude predicted decreased depression and increased joy.
That was my hope – to be happier, or less depressed, during the winter months.
There are numerous ways to cultivate gratitude. In the next few paragraphs, I will review some of the more common ways, including Grateful Remembering, Grateful Reframing, and Grateful Expression.
1. Grateful Remembering (or what some positive psychology researchers call Grateful Recounting)
Grateful Remembering involves remembering and reflecting on blessings or good things in your life.
Emmons and McCullough (two prominent gratitude scientists) conducted a study on a “counting blessings” intervention; they reported that people who wrote about their blessings at least once a week for 10 weeks felt more optimistic about the week to come, and they felt better about their overall lives than did fellow research participants who wrote about daily annoyances or everyday events.
Other studies have found that variations of the “counting blessings” intervention (e.g. journaling and listing three good things) improved people’s life satisfaction and self-esteem, alleviated symptoms of depression and boosted positive affect, though only in participants who had high depressive symptoms to begin with, and increased optimism and happiness (Allen, 2018).
Dr. Watkins concludes that “grateful recounting interventions don’t work simply because people are activating positive memories. There’s something important about grateful processing. People keep getting happier well after the treatment has concluded”. In other words, Grateful Remembering may work because it trains us to notice the good in our lives and to appreciate the good in our lives.
Along with the gratitude visits, my initial gratitude project in 2017 started with a desire to practice gratitude in this area of grateful remembering or recounting by trying the three good things exercise mentioned above.
In this practice, you write about three good things that happened during the day. It isn’t necessarily critical that you write out three things every day, however. I’ve seen some research that suggests that feeling obligated to write three good things every day for the rest of your life can be inhibiting. Nonetheless, it is important to have a routine, especially at first, and try it for at least a week - write out three good things in the morning or end of the day. There are also APPs that can assist you in developing this as a regular practice throughout your day. The goal is to shift your focus from our natural inclination to ruminate on things that go wrong to reflecting on what has gone right during the day.
Another title for the three good things exercise is ‘What Went Well, and Why’. This title captures the essence of the intervention and takes it a step further. You want to focus on what went well but then also reflect on why that was a good thing.
Let me share with you an example from my journal during this time of my 2017 project and how I went about listing good things and what came to mind when I considered – WHY.
One good thing I think of that went well today is that I sat down to write and didn’t get caught up in TV or the news or emails. And why is this a good thing? Well, because I want to stick to my goal of finishing a draft of my book as soon as possible. This is also a good thing because I want to share my story with others. I have experience with emotional challenges and strategies for managing them, and I think this can be a benefit to others. So, when I can follow through on my goals of writing and communicating what has helped me, this is a good thing for me and others.
I remember that when I wrote this ‘three good things’ entry, I felt a difference in the moment. It is so easy to get bogged down and stuck in our way of thinking without even realizing it. When we take time to intentionally focus on a good thing in our life, that short-circuits the negative thoughts.
I also recall taking a deep breath, a sigh of relief, when I reminded myself of the good in my life. Even now, I feel a difference in my mindset when reviewing this entry – a little bit more peace.
And this is what the science is showing. If you can focus on what is going well, the good in your life on a regular basis, your mood is altered.
So, what about you?
What comes to mind when you think about a good thing that happened today or this week?
Take ONE minute to reflect on this ‘good thing that went well’ and then also spend another few seconds to consider why it went well and why it was a good thing. This simple practice can begin to shift your mentality and mindset in the moment and may even lead to long-term change if practiced regularly over time.
2. Grateful Reframing (or what researchers have called Grateful Reappraisal): Reframing Open Memories or Grateful Processing of Unpleasant Memories
Grateful Reframing (or Reappraisal) is an exercise that asks participants to recall a negative or difficult experience and reflect on it in a new light. They are asked to think about the benefits of this difficult circumstance, the positives that came from it, or how the event prepared them for situations in the future. By reflecting on these questions, participants reframe a challenging ‘open’ memory.
An open memory is a troubling memory from your past that you feel is not yet behind you and is poorly understood. It’s an emotional memory that may intrude into your consciousness at unwelcome times, and you feel you have some “unfinished business” associated with this memory. In other words, in many ways this emotional memory is still an “open book” for you (Watkins, 2018).
Watkins suggests that grateful reframing of unpleasant open memories works because it brings more closure to those memories, decreases the unpleasant emotional impact of recalling those memories, and decreases the intrusiveness of the memories (Watkins, 2018).
It is your turn.
What is ONE open memory that still feels like unfinished business in your life and may bog you down?
Consider the positives that may have come as a result. One of my old professors would call this process of looking for the good in the bad - ‘mining for gold’. Can you see any gold nuggets that may have emerged from this mucky memory from your life?
3. Grateful Expression: Writing and Delivering Letters of Gratitude or the Gratitude Visit
The main focus of my gratitude project in 2017 was this third category of Grateful Expression, which includes gratitude visits.
Emmons (2013) suggests the following:
One of the most effective ways to deepen your own gratefulness is to write a letter of gratitude to an important person in your life whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank and then visit that person to present him or her with the letter… Studies published in the most rigorous scientific publications show that the gratitude visit can increase happiness and decrease depression in the letter writer for as long as three months after the visit.
Several studies have attempted to identify the impact of writing and reading gratitude letters on overall well-being. In one study, participants were asked to write a gratitude letter once a week for three weeks; after completing the exercise, they were happier, less depressed, and more satisfied with their lives (Toepfer et al., 2012).
In another study, participants who were assigned to write a gratitude letter that they were told would be sent to the person they were thanking reported increased positive affect and decreased negative affect (Allen, 2018).
Research from Martin Seligman’s positive psychology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that gratitude visits can help improve well-being. Seligman et al. (2005) report in their article “Positive Psychology Interventions”: “gratitude visits, caused large positive changes for one month”.
These were the instructions that Seligman (2002) and his assistants gave participants:
Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. Choose someone who is still alive. Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this – several weeks if required. Invite that person to your home or travel to that person’s home. It is important that you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance.
Bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. Read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression and eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you.
So, in early January of 2017, as I continued to battle my winter blues, I composed my first gratitude letter to my mom.
A good letter takes me several iterations over a few weeks. I often jot down initial thoughts, bulletting items and themes that I want to include. Then I begin to outline the letter to see the flow and how and where to incorporate additional memories or anecdotes. I write a first rough draft next without overthinking the wording or grammar. Lastly, I refine the letter into its final draft.
It has been important for me to let the contents simmer over time, weeks and months sometimes, rather than trying to write everything in one sitting. I let the unconscious do its work while I go about my day, and even during sleep, as I dream about all this person has meant to me.
In my experience, just the practice of writing down and reflecting on the memories and special moments of our lives with our gratitude recipient (friend, family member, mentor, professor, etc…), has a tremendous impact on our mindset. Perhaps a reason the gratitude visit is so powerful is because it includes the practices of grateful remembering and reframing.
After many versions over a few weeks, this is the final draft of my gratitude letter to my mom.
I wanted to take some time to write a letter expressing my gratitude to you for all that you’ve done for me and all that you’ve meant to me.
It is hard enough to put into words what any person’s life means. It is especially difficult expressing what your mother or father means to you. You literally gave me life; there isn’t anything more significant than that. It is humbling to think that I would not be here without you.
But you have not only given me life, you have nurtured and supported me throughout my life. There may have been a time once or twice that you raised your voice or were unhappy with me in some way, but I can’t recall a single incident. I only remember tenderness and grace, patience and love.
I’ve always appreciated your encouragement of my various interests, phases, and directions in life. Through both good and difficult experiences, you have been there, open to listen and offer the right amount of concern and counsel.
You have always made it easy for me to pursue all kinds of athletic and academic pursuits early, laying the foundation for a life full of adventure and exploration. You’ve spent countless hours cheering me onto success in soccer through college. You attended most of my extracurricular events and showed great pride in my academic achievements. You and Dad got behind me when I decided to pursue medicine in college, and even though you may not have wanted me to change majors, you supported my decision to alter vocational directions in favor of ministry. When I planned to resign from my position in New Jersey and spend time traveling, you allowed me to call your home my home base again. When I told you I wanted to write a book about my adventures, you could have doubted or questioned my ability, but instead, you got behind me.
I’ve taken many different paths in life as I’ve followed the road less travelled; but I’ve had the courage and fortitude to follow my dreams because of the support you and dad provided me. I’ve had a rich life in all respects, and I attribute that to the love, creativity, and acceptance that you gave me throughout my life.
You have been and continue to be a shining example of how to live with poise and perspective through celebratory times, debilitating illness, family highs, personal loss, complicated grief and all of God’s other unexpected curve balls and blessings.
I love you and will be forever grateful that you not only gave me life but gave me the favor and freedom to live my life.
When it came time to deliver the letter, I had second thoughts. I wrote this in my journal:
I just wrote my first gratitude letter to my mom. I am anxious and nervous to deliver and read it to her. It is so out of the ordinary for what our family does or what most of my friends would think of doing… it feels like a huge risk, for some reason.
Maybe this is how life should be lived, and perhaps it is lived this way by many people. But I haven’t met a lot of folks who do this on a regular basis; it feels like swimming upstream, against life’s current.
So, I’m debating about doing this; I think it would be easier to not go through with it and just put it off until next week, or next month, or not at all.
I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to get up the courage to read the letter to my mother. We have had a good relationship throughout my life, but perhaps our family culture and dynamic didn’t include these kinds of vulnerable expressions.
But after my initial internal debate about whether to follow through with my first letter to my mother, I decided it was worth the risk. I invited her to breakfast at IHOP. After ordering, I surprised her and told her I wanted to read her something. I pulled out the letter, which I framed for her to keep, and I began. She seemed surprised at first but listened attentively. I expected my mom to start crying in places, but I found that I was much more emotional than she was. I took my time working me way through the letter, something Seligman instructed his participants to do; I paused at points to enjoy remembering and reminiscing and to ask questions.
I wrote this in my journal:
Our conversation revolved around the letter for a little while, but then we talked about other memories, my birth, adoption of my brother, and other family matters.
I asked her about the circumstances of my birth, about miscarriages before and after. She said that they weren’t able to have children at first. That they adopted my brother because of their infertility. And then she found out later, after the adoption, that she was pregnant and had a miscarriage. She then had my two sisters, me and then had another miscarriage.
After reading the letter, I almost instantly felt peace and contentment. I experienced a deeper sense of grounding and connection to my mother but also to something greater. I felt confidence and joy, or maybe well-being. Whatever anxiety or fear I had, almost completely disappeared and was replaced by satisfaction.
I wondered how long my positive emotional state following the gratitude visit with my mom would linger; the research suggests that results last anywhere from one to six months.
Interestingly, however, for me, I found that the initial boost in mood only lasted about a day or two.
On day three, I had returned to baseline: somewhat melancholic and reflective.
I had to decide whether I wanted to go through with the year-long experiment. It was a lot of work to write a good, meaningful letter.
I had considered abandoning the entire thing; I felt as if I may have fallen prey to the placebo effect, or a victim of unrealistic wishful thinking about the research results I had read.
Although Seligman’s initial research showed greater happiness and decreased symptoms of depression one month later, Allen (2018) reports a potential bias:
It’s important to note that the subjects in this study were recruited from Seligman’s website for his book Authentic Happiness and were told that they were participating in a study intended to increase participants’ well-being. This process for recruiting participants may have led to self-selection effects, which could help explain why the results reported in this study were stronger than those from other studies (p. 34).
Watkins (2018) reports that the initial impact of the gratitude visit is much greater than other interventions like counting blessings (three good things); the research has shown, however, there are no long-term benefits after six months. (Seligman et al., 2005).
I had experienced a greater increase in my emotional state for a couple of days, but with a return to my winter blues norm in such a short amount of time, I wondered about the reliability of the research on gratitude and the efficacy of my gratitude project to improve well-being.
In my process of evaluation about whether to continue on with my project, I thought about the purpose of the project – to challenge my melancholy mindset and to see if anything new could help. I also thought about the research around consistency with these types of positive psychology practices – that you won’t reap the full super-powered benefits of gratitude if you only try a gratitude visit or positive psychology exercise one time.
I also had this thought - the essence of gratitude is for other people. This project wasn’t just about boosting my mood; it was about giving gratitude to others for what they had done and meant to me.
That thought was the turning point for me, and when I decided to continue with my gratitude visit project for the entire year of 2017 and beyond.
And I am so glad I did because it changed my life.
It is now November of 2023 (the initial draft of this blog post), and I can look back over almost six winters since I completed the project and proclaim that I have not experienced the same degree of depression I did prior to my gratitude visit project.
I truly believe the writing of the letters, contemplating and ruminating on the good of what I had been given in my relationships, remembering and reframing some of the challenges along the way, and expressing my gratitude to friends and family all over the country, not only changed my mindset while I was on the adventure, but also rewired my brain chemistry with the continual consistent gratitude practice.
Wherever you might be in terms of your melancholic, winter bluesy sadness, consider trying a gratitude practice (for more than a day). But then, also, commit to seeing it through for at least a year.
So one final question -
Who are you going to write your first letter of gratitude to?
As I mentioned, I am working on completing a more detailed account of my gratitude project in an e-book with additional letters and suggestions for crafting your own positive psychology project.
If I can be of help in this journey toward greater mental health and well-being, please reach out to me at