Being Grateful for 2020, Despite All That It Was

Yes, that’s right — I wanted to talk about taking the time to be grateful for the year 2020.

As we kick off 2021 with fresh hopes for the new year and look back on what was, for many, the most challenging year of our lives, I believe it’s valuable to look back and think about what we are grateful for in 2020.

It’s easy to want to forget last year and write it off. We’ve all seen the posts on social media lamenting this horrible year, saying we should just forget about it all, and wishing “good riddance to 2020.”

It was indeed a very difficult year in so many ways. Living through many of these once-in-a-lifetime events, watching so many others struggle, and dealing with the personal impacts to our own lives, was very challenging. Some people had it much worse than others and lost jobs and even friends and loved ones.

For me and my family, 2020 also included the passing of my dear mother-in-law, some new health issues, several college and senior plans being shattered for my kids and other very tough events.

Many of the many challenges we’ve all experienced that began in 2020 will linger into 2021 — things no amount of positive thinking will erase.

However, regardless of your situation, there is some good to find in 2020 if you take the time to think about. What if you could actually become grateful for the year 2020?

When you look back on experiences you’ve had, whether it be a hard day, a challenging week or even an entire year, it’s a matter of perspective in what you choose to focus on and remember about the experiences of that time that makes the difference. This same focus and perspective can be applied when you look back on 2020 as well.

Humans have what psychologists call a negativity bias in our brains. This bias means that even when positive things happen, it’s the more negative things that can dominate our thinking and memories. There is an evolutionary basis for this bias as it was an effective way to protect our ancestors from harm.

Our ancestors who tended to worry about looking out for the saber tooth tiger lurking in the bushes — versus someone else who absentmindedly approached the big friendly kitty with long teeth — were the ones who survived. The ones who lived to pass on their genes got better at noticing and avoiding life threatening risks. This means our brains were literally wired over millennia to notice and remember the negative things more so than the positive. This negativity bias remains with us today, even though we don’t typically have the same threats to our daily survival.

Just because we are wired for remembering the negative doesn’t mean we can’t consciously overrule that tendency and choose to focus on the positive aspects of a situation instead. What we focus on expands in our minds so you can choose to focus on the good in your life and learn to be more consciously grateful for what you do have, as opposed to dwelling on what you don’t have or any other negatives.

As Oprah says, “What you focus on expands, and when you focus on the goodness in your life, you create more of it.”

There’s been a lot written about practicing gratitude and the many benefits of this simple act.

If you aren’t familiar with this, it’s just taking a few moments each day to bring awareness to things in your life, both big and small, that you are grateful for. This helps to crowd out the negativity bias and bring your awareness to the many things you can be grateful for, whatever your situation.

There are numerous scientific studies showing how this simple daily practice is proven to impact positive thinking, increase resilience, improve relationships and your overall happiness, and many other benefits. Robert Emmons, Ph.D., a researcher and author of several books on gratitude, states “The benefits from counting blessings are tangible, emotionally and physically. People are 25 percent happier and more energetic if they keep gratitude journals, have 20 percent less envy and resentment, sleep 10 percent longer each night and wake up 15 percent more refreshed, exercise 33 percent more.”

I began formally practicing gratitude several years ago and it’s made a big difference. There are different ways to practice gratitude and for me, it’s as easy as taking a few minutes each morning to think about, and often write down, five or 10 things I’m grateful for in my life.

I did this each day in 2020 and I found that it really helped my mood and mindset, especially when it often felt like the world was falling apart. Practicing gratitude helped to refocus my day on the positives and pull away from the negativity bias. There is a good amount of science about how gratitude works and the benefits. Here is a great article if interested in learning more.

As I reflect back on the year, I choose to remember the positives that I wouldn’t have otherwise had if it weren’t for some of the major challenges that hit us last year. Here are six of the things on my 2020 gratitude list that by sharing might trigger some ideas for yourself:

  • Getting time with my wife and kids over the summer that I would not otherwise have had. My daughter was supposed to do a summer abroad and my oldest son’s internship was supposed to be in Dallas. Both of them, of course, would rather have not been at home this summer, and I wish they didn’t miss out on those experiences, but my wife and I are both very grateful for this unplanned time with them, especially as quality time becomes so much harder to come by once they hit the college years.
  • Becoming much more aware of the work that needs to be done with racial equity in our society. The massive number of peaceful protests in the U.S. and around the world was an inspiration for me that led to a path of greater self-awareness and understanding. I was able to have meaningful conversations with black friends and colleagues that I would not otherwise have had. This awareness will positively change me forever, and I plan to make a meaningful impact, and I am grateful for that opportunity for change.
  • Learning to work from home effectively. This was very tough at first, and I still miss the in-person interaction with my colleagues and clients; however, it became more natural over time and is something that will be very useful going forward, even in a post-pandemic world.
  • Accelerated our e-learning strategy for the non-profit I founded, Ignite MindShift. Prior to May of this year, all of Ignite MindShift’s training was done in-person with underserved teenagers, teaching them mindsets and self-leadership skills to succeed in work and life. In May of 2020, we were awarded a grant that allowed us to develop four of our student training modules into e-learning courses that have now been taken by hundreds of students. The grant will enable us to continue to reach more students this way in the future.
  • Take up golf again. I’ve had starts and stops over the past 25 years to learn to play golf. Not traveling and having this downtime in 2020 allowed me to take lessons and practice enough that for the first time, I’ve (just barely) become confident to be on the course and play 18 holes with friends. I have a long way to go on my golf game, but I love it, and it’s something I look forward to doing more of in the future.
  • Becoming consistent in my morning practice of meditation. I had a 280-day streak of meditating for about 10 minutes a day, which made a big difference for me, and it’s a practice I will continue to work on.

I could go on, but these are a few of the big ones. In each case, I would not have had these positive experiences, memories, and personal growth if it weren’t for the challenges that 2020 brought. I could focus on plenty of negatives for last year, but I share this list because this is what I choose to think about regarding what 2020 brought for me.

What’s on your list for gratitude looking back at 2020? Feel free to share at least one of your focus areas for practicing gratitude in the comments. You also may want to take 10 minutes and write your own list and share those items with people you care about. I’ve personally found that practicing intentional gratitude on a daily basis makes a meaningful difference in my overall perspective and well-being.

Here’s to looking back on the good that came from 2020 and looking forward to what 2021 brings.

Fred Brown, Founder of Ignite Mindshift Impact

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