What Was Good in 2020? More Than You Might Think
Controlling how we respond to tough times is a key to thriving.
Posted January 20, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
In life, bad things happen to everyone. These experiences are often inevitable and uncontrollable. To thrive, we must capitalize on the positives, such as our relationships, and the things we can control to deal with the inevitable adversity that happens in life.
In 2020, suffering was notable on a global scale. Good riddance. However, years—like most days or even moments—are not so black-and-white that we can call them universally good or bad. Further, how we respond to events is something we can control. In my work and this blog, I use science to examine how people respond to positive and negative experiences so that we can overcome adversity, live well, and thrive.
Let’s take a moment to rethink 2020. To do so, we need to understand that low levels of anxiety, fear, and adversity (such as that caused by a pandemic) make us feel uncomfortable, but they are also helpful because they can bring people together. When people make us feel afraid or anxious, we seek others we trust—our “ingroup"—to keep us safe. Yet when we stick to our ingroups, people can become divided, and we can perceive disagreements as “us vs. them.”
COVID-19 is different because it is the enemy of all humans. In this situation, everyone can be part of the ingroup because of our shared common humanity.
In simpler terms, this pandemic has brought people together. Around the world, we saw celebrations and appreciation of essential workers and frontline heroes. People stayed home to keep others safe. We saw acts of kindness go viral (just search #covidKindness on social media) and communities come together in new ways (e.g., dance parties, bell ringing). Around the globe, we saw large groups of people risk their health to protest centuries-old unjust treatment and systemic racism. Unprecedented international cooperation and support from scientists, governments, and other organizations have all helped ensure better health prevention strategies and the production of multiple vaccines in record time that have already saved countless lives.
Emmons and McCullough found that one tool to help us find the positives even on a “bad” day or year is to write down three things that went well. By writing these several evenings each week, you will start to train your brain to see how even bad days have good elements. You will also notice important themes—such as friends and family—that are central to our thriving.
Despite 2020 being hard, here are three of my good things.
1. My wife, son, and I welcomed a healthy new daughter to our family.
Research finds that pregnancy (Lebel et al., 2020) and caring for a newborn (Davenport et al., 2020) during this pandemic are linked to much higher levels of anxiety and depression. The joy and relief of my daughter’s healthy birth were mixed with new anxiety about getting sick and bringing it home to my parents and community. I am thankful for the essential workers, from the custodians to doctors, who use scientific practices to keep us safe (e.g., wearing masks) even as COVID-19 numbers soared.
2. I got to spend much more time with my 2-year-old son because our daycare closed. I was more a part of his growth and learning than I ever would have been.
At the same time, living without daycare for months was exhausting, challenging, and frustrating, especially because I was anxious about the health of my pregnant wife and unborn child. I was tired from working late hours to make up for the time when I was caring for my son. To think, I was not even the one who was pregnant. I admire and appreciate my wife for managing all this while being pregnant. I also appreciate our daycare workers and teachers even more than I did before.
3. To prepare for teaching my college courses online, I spent a lot of time reworking the way I teach. Many of the improvements will stay and benefit my students long after this pandemic is over.
During a pandemic without daycare is not the time to rethink classes and learn about new technology. Yet I did and I am excited to continue using my new skills.
I am sure each of you suffered in unique ways, some much more than I, but I also am sure that you had some positives in the past year. This isn't about denying or ignoring the suffering. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl taught us that there can be meaning in the worst suffering. Appreciating the positives and our growth will help us overcome this suffering and increase our chances of thriving.
I hope you will join me for future explorations on this blog about how our emotions, relationships, and experiences occur in a complex world as we use science to guide us to overcome adversity and to thrive.
Emmons, R. A., & Mccullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.
Lebel, C., MacKinnon, A., Bagshawe, M., Tomfohr-Madsen, L., & Giesbrecht, G. (2020). Elevated depression and anxiety among pregnant individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Affective Disorders, 277, 5-13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.07.126
Davenport, M. H., Meyer, S., Meah, V. L., Strynadka, M. C., & Khurana, R. (2020). Moms are not ok: COVID-19 and maternal mental health. Frontiers in Global Women's Health, 1, 1. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgwh.2020.00001
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.