During the break I spent most of my time doomscrolling, listening to Billie Eilish and brooding in my room. The cruel Chicago winter kept me from getting out much, and the torturous crawl of time kept me from wanting to do much. But after ringing in 2021 with nothing more than a dull NPR news podcast and a fresh sense of angst, I figured a lifestyle change was in order — starting with my perspective.
The prevailing perspective in the U.S. is one of pessimism and despair. We are grim about our past, present and future. Social media wields the unique ability to ruin our mood at a moment’s notice and news organizations consistently churn out disparaging headlines. Growing up in the technological era has made it especially difficult to escape the constant inundation of bad news. It has become exhausting flipping through Instagram stories and learning about the latest injustice or scrolling through Twitter and reading some of the most hateful opinions humanity has to offer. And being a Yalie means learning in an environment obsessed with only the highest levels of success, making it easy to see each personal failure as a catastrophic event. Receiving a grade that is even slightly lower than I expected can sometimes feel like my future is falling apart.
While pessimism is sometimes warranted, constant negativity can become consuming and distracting. It hinders growth and stagnates progress. To grow and mature, I have come to find, it is important to appreciate the lessons of last year — both good and bad — and look to the future with positivity.
I’m far from being an optimist, and after the fecal festival that was 2020, I started the new year in no rush to get my hopes up. But on Jan. 1, I had grown quite tired of my monotonous routine, whose sole benefit was an occasional sarcastic chuckle in response to how horrible the world had become. I wanted more out of life than a miserable demeanor and a phone addiction.
So, as any Yalie searching for a new perspective would do, I looked for Dr. Laurie Santos and found her in an NPR podcast episode. In the episode, Dr. Santos posits that gratitude is a key component of psychological well-being, and the research agrees. Study after study shows that expressing gratitude is linked with better physical, emotional and psychological health. Those who are more grateful tend to see improvements in their mood, relationships and sleep habits. I realized that gratitude was a prerequisite for living the life I was looking for — a richer, more meaningful, more impactful life.
Having been intrigued by my findings, I continued on my quest to reverse engineer happiness, and I found that hope, too, is a key component of living a more joyful, healthy and fulfilling life. Hope has been shown to correlate with higher academic achievement, reduced risk of death and more happiness generally.
Beyond their physical benefits, gratitude and hope have given me a much-needed change in world outlook.
As someone who aspires to be successful and make a positive impact on society, I recognize the values of hope and gratitude in their ability to buoy my disposition. Living with ambition can be challenging. It requires a source of motivation extending beyond our passion, because there will come a time when passion is not strong enough to spur us to action. In those moments it is crucial that we are able to lean on hope and gratitude for reinvigoration and re-inspiration.
If my brief foray into Maire Kondo-ing my life has taught me anything, it is that we all owe it to ourselves to embrace hope and gratitude. But what does that look like in practice?
Being grateful and hopeful does not require a complete overhaul of your life. The essence of practicing gratitude and hopefulness is reframing your perspective on yourself and the world around you. Little things like placing a positive spin on your negative thoughts, or taking a break from your crowded schedule to be present with your surroundings, can have an enormous impact on your life.
For me, that means taking a break from social media, cutting down on my Billie Eilish brooding time and taking an occasional stroll down my snow-covered block.
For you, that might mean starting a gratitude journal, meditating for a few minutes each day or doing something else completely. You ultimately have to find what works best for you. Luckily there is a wealth of information on how to hold on to hope, from TED Talks to magazine articles to Netflix shows. The same goes for gratitude.
So why don’t you take some time for gratitude and hope? After the year you’ve had, you deserve it.
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. His column, titled “What We Owe,” runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: The content of this op-ed is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, you should always seek the advice of mental health professionals or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding mental health conditions.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). If you are located outside the United States, call your local emergency line immediately.