With thanksgiving just around the corner, there is good reason to start thinking about the things you are thankful for. However, this tradition may not be the only reason you might want to do so. Giving thanks or practicing gratitude is thought to be beneficial due to the positive effects it can have on mental health. But is this always the case?

Gratitude is comprised of two components: recognition of good and acknowledgment of the source of the good [1]. The first component – recognition of the good – involves being attentive or mindful of the good that has occurred rather than ignoring it. Nada Conic, Spiritual Counsellor at the Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre states, “when people say nothing good happened to me today they’re focused exclusively on the bad things that happened”. This narrow focus is indicative of a closed mindset, which has long been associated with mental illness [2, 3]. Thus, practicing gratitude might help to increase mood and mental health.

A study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough tested this theory by asking participants to write either about things they were grateful for or about things that irritated them whereas a control group wrote about neutral life events. Results showed that those who wrote about things that they were grateful for reported increased positive mood [4]. Of course, this data is correlational and does not show that gratitude has the effect of causing such feelings; thus, further research is needed to determine whether those who are happier are more grateful or whether being grateful makes you happier.

The second component of gratitude – recognition of the source of the good – requires acknowledgement that something has been given to you. This entails a suppression of the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to internal factors while attributing negative outcomes to external factors, also known as the self-serving bias [1]. However, it is thought that the self-serving bias is actually necessary for well-being because it allows for the maintenance of positive self-image [5]. Several studies support this, finding that attenuating the self-serving bias was linked to depression [6]. Other studies suggest that excessively attributing positive outcomes to the self can result in illusions and can also be linked to mental illness [7].

Thus, striking a balance between these levels seems to be key. For those without mental illness, the natural tendency is an enhanced self-serving bias. A study by Krusemark, Campbell and Clementz (2008) looking at neural correlates of the self-serving bias showed that the medial prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain involved in complex thinking and planning – was activated only when subjects were prompted to use self-serving statements versus non-self-serving statements. This suggests that self-serving neural processes are natural and would require cognitive effort to override [8]. Thus, lowering this bias by practicing gratitude may be beneficial for those who do not have mental illness.

However, for those who have a mental illness, such as depression, empirical evidence shows the opposite trend – that is, they have a natural tendency towards a decreased self-serving bias wherein they attribute both negative and positive outcomes to themselves exclusively [6]. Therefore, in order to achieve balance for this group, perhaps practicing gratitude might not be appropriate. Since aspects of practicing gratitude involve the attribution of positive outcomes to external factors, this might only enhance feelings of low self-worth, rendering someone even more depressed.

Instead, it may be beneficial to practice self-compassion, which involves showing oneself kindness in the face of failures and negative outcomes rather than harsh self-judgement [9]. A vast body of research suggests a positive link between self-compassion and psychological health; however, again, this data is largely correlational and further research is needed in order to determine causation [9].

Overall, gratitude may be helpful in maintaining positive mental health, but this may only be the case for a subset of people without mental illness. For those with mental illness, perhaps something involving the practice of self-compassion, or gratitude towards themselves, might help to mitigate symptoms more effectively than practicing gratitude.


By: Christina Gizzo
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick



[1] Robert Emmons (2010) Why Gratitude is Good. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Retrieved from: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good

[2] Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression.

New York: Guilford Press.

[3] Evans, J., Heron, J., Lewis, G., Araya, R., & Wolke, D.ALSPAC Study Team. (2005). Negative self-schemas and the onset of depression in women: Longitudinal study. British

Journal of Psychiatry, 186, 302–307.

[4] Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology84(2), 377.

[5] Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193–210. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.103.2.193

[6] Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 711–747. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711

[7] Meyer, T. D., Barton, S., Baur, M., & Jordan, G. (2010). Vulnerability factors for bipolar disorders as predictors of attributions in ability-based and chance-based tests. Journal of Individual Differences, 31, 29–37. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000004

[8] Coalson, D (2014) Self-Serving Bias: A Review of Research on Variability and Outcomes

[9] Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. Self-Compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness.