Finding Gratitude in Unlikely Places

 

It’s officially that point in the school year: tensions are running high with the stress of final exams, papers, projects, and presentations. To make matters worse, the Wisconsin weather hasn’t been too kind recently. We were teased by 70-degree days back in February, but now we’ve hit weeks of rainy, chilly weather.

Rather than focusing on the negatives of these situations, what if we flipped our mindset to see them as positive things?

Sure, we may be sleep-deprived from studying, but we should be thankful we have the privilege of a college education unlike hundreds of millions of people all over the world. It’s true we’d probably rather be hanging out on the terrace with friends than sitting inside to avoid the crappy weather, but I’ve found the lack of sunshine to be conducive to studying!

Practicing gratitude has gotten me through some of the hardest seasons in my life, like my brain surgery last fall. Coincidentally, today marks exactly 18 months tumor-free (according to my journal) and I’m reminded of the positive things that experience
brought me: incredible support from communities at school
and back home, deeper relationships with my family and friends, quality time binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy with Mom and doing puzzles with Grandma and Grandpa, and even delicious treats from friends who came to visit.

It’s true that we can’t always change our circumstances, but we can choose how we look at and think about them. How can we use gratitude to change our outlook on a negative situation and turn it into a positive thing?

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Keep a gratitude journal

This is my favorite way to reflect on the events of my day and pick out five specific things I was thankful for that day. Often they’re things that made me happy or feel good: grabbing lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, turning in a big project, or finding a perfect new Spotify playlist.

fullsizeoutput_2fdfGratitude journals are a great way to become more mindful of your surroundings – I often find myself walking around campus and suddenly realizing I’m thankful I hit a stoplight right when the light switched to “walk.” If you keep one of these for a few years in an ongoing “memory journal,” it’s always fun to look back and try to remember what was going on in your life based on the five short things you wrote in your journal that day.

Find the rainbow

Yes, it sounds cliché, but it’s true and it starts to work the more you practice it. Whether you’re stuck in a literal or a figurative storm, there will always be something positive about it if you search hard enough.giphy2

Story time: the other night, I was about to leave the library when I realized it was pouring outside, I had left my umbrella at home, and all the Ubers were at least 10 minutes away (plus, I didn’t even have enough money in my checking account to pay for one at the time… gotta love college). So I trekked home (admittedly feeling bad for myself all the while) and walked into the house with squeaky tennis shoes, a soaking wet giphysweatshirt, and hair that had me looking like Samara from The Ring (click on that link, I dare you). As soon as I walked through the door though, I felt so relieved and thankful that 1) I live only three blocks from the library instead of much farther, 2) I could immediately swap my wet socks and shoes for cozy slippers, and 3) the fireplace was on in the TV room, so I could curl up there for some heat. I may not have seen the physical rainbow in the sky that night, but I created one for myself instead.

We had a great discussion about this at my sorority’s bible study tonight. Many girls shared prayer requests for loved ones who were sick, and one girl in particular inspired me with what she had to say about her grandma who passed less than two weeks ago: “It was sudden and unexpected, so it’s obviously been hard on my family. But then we realized she would want us to be remembering her long, fulfilling life and all the great times we had with her rather than dwelling on the fact that she’s no longer with us.” I was taken aback by the wisdom and maturity of her mindset – now that’s what I call a rainbow.

Appreciate the small victories

This is one of my favorite lessons I’ve picked up from practicing yoga. Even on days your breath feels off, your muscles won’t seem to stretch out, or it just feels like everyone in the class is better at yoga than you, begin to thank yourself for making it to your mat in the first place. It may feel frustrating or like you didn’t have the “best” practice of your life, but I guarantee you learned much more about yourself during that class than you would have if you’d decided not to go, and you’ll probably have a clearer and more productive mind afterwards.

Acknowledge your growth

We’ve all been there – you really felt like you killed that exam, but your score apparently says otherwise. Commence the sudden wave of a multitude of negative emotions: anger towards your professor for making the questions tricky, frustration with yourself for not studying hard enough, and hopelessness for ending the class with the grade you wanted.fullsizeoutput_2fe1

Before you call your mom crying about how you’re going to drop out of school (we’ve also all been there, right?), hold up for a minute. Think about all the things you learned from this experience: you now know how the professor writes his/her exams and can study smarter for the next one, you probably identified what study techniques did and didn’t work for you, and if you really bombed it, there’s nowhere to go but up!

 

Being grateful isn’t about being naively optimistic or a Pollyanna. It’s about acknowledging the good things in your life and being thankful for them, but also finding good things in the bad. Gratitude is also not a destination or some form of enlightenment – it’s something you must work at every day until it becomes like second nature, but will always be a work in progress.

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