Does Telling People to Count their Blessings Help Anyone?


In the PLOS Blog Mind the Brain, James Coyne provides a detailed critical evaluation of a recent meta-analysis of “positive psychology” interventions for depression.

“Going back to my first publication almost 40 years ago, I’ve been interested in the inept strategies that other people adopt to try to cheer up depressed persons,” writes Coyne. “The risk of positive psychology interventions is that depressed primary care patients would perceive the exercises as more ineffectual pressures on them to think good thoughts, be optimistic and snap out of their depression. If depressed persons try these exercises without feeling better, they are accumulating more failure experiences and further evidence that they are defective, particularly in the context of glowing claims in the popular media of the power of simple positive psychology interventions to transform lives.”

Coyne calls the abstract for the 2013 meta-analysis he finds in BMC Public Health “wishy-washy”, and proceeds to walk through it step by step to determine if techniques such as counting your blessings, practicing kindness, or setting personal goals actually help alleviate depressive symptoms or not.

Positive psychology interventions for depressive symptoms (Mind the Brain, October 28, 2014)


  1. “counting your blessings, practicing kindness, or setting personal goals”
    At the time when I was depressed any of these “techniques” only made me feel like punching the person giving this “good advice”.

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  2. Giving advice in general seems to be ineffective and counterproductive. I think the more fundamental mistake is grouping all depressed people together and assuming that one intervention is supposed to help everyone. Since there are so many reasons and contexts for people’s emotional reaction, it should be obvious that you have to approach each person as a unique individual with different needs, goals, and experiences. By even grouping such people together in a study, you defeat the whole purpose of the study.

    The only fairly universal principle I’ve found is that listening to, understanding, validating and normalizing a person’s emotional response to their life circumstances tends to help most people moving in the direction of thinking about possible solutions, regardless of their “diagnosis.” But sometimes there aren’t any large-scale solutions and sometimes someone’s circumstances simply suck. Suggesting that they “count their blessings” is so counter-intuitive to me that I doubt I could ever get the words out of my mouth if forced at gunpoint.

    Kinda tired of people selling viewpoints on the “right answer” to “mental health problems.” Sometimes the best you can do is to sit with a person in their pain and let them know you empathize. Trying to “fix it” for them usually leaves people feeling invalidated and pissed.

    —- Steve

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    • Great summary of the problem as usual Steve.
      “I think the more fundamental mistake is grouping all depressed people together and assuming that one intervention is supposed to help everyone.”
      And you can also substitute “depressed” with any other “mental illness” and your analysis will be just as accurate if not more. That is the primary problem with the whole DSM bs.

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