Finding the good in a no-good year

Time for some silver-lining gratitude.

Two years ago, I wrote an essay called “Gratitude is easy when life is good.” It was one of the first issues of My Sweet Dumb Brain, and it’s still one of my favorites.

When life feels especially hard, being grateful can seem like a Herculean act. Being reminded that you’re supposed to be thankful can make the struggle to find gratitude even harder. But, I’m here to gently encourage you (and remind myself) that it works.

I’ve been thinking about that essay because 2020 is a year that’s felt especially hard for a lot of us. Right now, with Thanksgiving just days away, everything feels off. Gathering with relatives or friends is awkward and, in many cases, discouraged; making yet another meal at home seems like a chore rather than a treat; and figuring out what to be grateful for feels more difficult than it may have been in previous years.

There have been bright moments, of course. My biggest blessing of 2020 is the arrival of a healthy and happy baby girl, who has recently discovered the power of a big, toothless smile. You’ve certainly experienced happy events this year, too. You may have adopted a pet, found serenity in solitude, or discovered a new routine that brings you joy. You’ve had reasons to celebrate—much-needed moments of relief and accomplishment. You may have even felt like this year was one of your best.

It’s hard to ignore, though, how difficult 2020 has been. It’s been a year of discomfort, one that left us battling with the present and dreading what the future may bring. We’ve experienced fear and uncertainty thanks to a worldwide pandemic, social isolation, racial injustice, climate disasters, and political upheaval. That’s not to mention our own struggles. For me, giving birth has led to some incredibly challenging and anxiety-ridden moments. I’d guess that your happy 2020 experiences have their caveats, too.

We’ve been through a hell of a year. We’re exhausted. And—hear me out—that’s exactly why it’s so important to be thankful. 

Here’s what I wrote in 2018:

When you’re in a tough spot, your mind tends to dwell on negative things. At least mine does; it wants to roll around in negative talk and thoughts all day long. But even amid all that negativity—after lots of tears, why-me’s, and desperate texts to friends—I can eventually find something to feel thankful for.

I think of it as silver-lining gratitude. That dark, angry cloud remains stubbornly perched over my brain, but there’s still something good to acknowledge. There always is.

I know now that it’s not just my sweet dumb brain that dwells on the negative; we’re all hardwired to focus on unfavorable events. Psychologists refer to this as the negativity bias: the notion that negative emotions or thoughts stick with us longer than positive or neutral experiences. 

The bad news is that 2020 has offered plenty of opportunities to dwell on negative events. The good news is that we can train our brains to focus more on the positive. One way to do that is by regularly connecting with your body—taking deep breaths, exercising, and meditating. Another way is by consistently making time for gratitude.

Time and again, researchers have found that people who take the time and make the effort to be grateful are generally happier, healthier, and more resilient. And given how difficult this year has been, I think we all deserve more happiness, health, and resilience.

Silver-lining gratitude is the approach I’ll once again take this year. Yes, following quarantine guidelines and being isolated from family and friends has been tough (an understatement!), but it’s led to unexpected blessings. I got house projects done and spent loads of quality time with Billy. I rediscovered jigsaw puzzles, baking, and podcasts. I said goodbye to my beloved dog on his terms and watched my pregnant belly grow over time. I wrote and read more than I would get to otherwise. I made the most of an unfamiliar experience—one that I wouldn’t have otherwise known I could handle.

Take some time this week to list out the positive things from this year. Give thanks for the big positive events and the smaller ones, which might otherwise fly under the radar. Share your gratitude out loud with others, and encourage them to do the same. And make it a habit—being thankful can happen on any day of the year.

No matter where you are in the world and in your life, I hope you find plenty of reasons for being grateful this week. I’ll be listing my blessings right alongside you.



My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is grateful for health insurance and access to quality healthcare—necessities to which every person should have a universal right! Photo by Stefan Vladimirov on Unsplash.