Beat the Coronavirus Blues with Gratitude

Gratitude helps in the toughest of times.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

We are living in truly unusual times. To reduce risk to our physical health, we have to minimize the very thing that is essential to being human: social contact.

Globally, social media is awash with fear, and government leaders are scrambling to enact measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some estimates by health experts where I live (England) suggest that variants of social distancing and nationwide lockdowns could run until the end of the year. In these times, we need ways to help us cope effectively, not only for our mental health but also for our physical health. Stress is only going to weaken immune systems, and without social contact, stress levels tend to rise.

One line of research that might provide help in these fear-laden, socially-isolated times is the power of gratitude to protect our mental health. The simple act of being grateful has been shown to have some powerful effects. In one study testing patients with recurrent breast cancer, it was found to help reduce fears of death and dying. In another study, university-age participants who were randomly assigned to write about their gratitude daily over a two-week period (compared to writing about your day or to neither) had more optimism, and even showed improved sleep and lower blood pressure.

In yet another study, mental health practitioners were randomly assigned to either write about their daily hassles, things they were grateful for, or neither. In the short term, the gratitude group showed the greatest reductions in stress and depression. After three months, these effects remained when compared to the control group.

Of course, these are extremely stressful times. We can all do our part to help stop the spread of the virus. It's important, though, that while protecting our physical bodies we also take steps to protect our psychological well-being. Humans are, arguably above all else, social beings. We need other people; they shape our values, our morality, our self-worth, and the very sense that we matter and are meaningful. Without social contact, we risk the very foundation (social norms and reinforcement) by which we maintain beliefs, both in ourselves and others. Our cognitive structure relies on others being there to make sense of the world and ourselves, and our emotional structure relies on others to feel the emotions that are so essential to being human.

We can take simple steps to help maintain those social-psychological needs. One of these steps is to take stock of what we have to be thankful for.