OPINION: An alternate avenue to gratitude

An abstract watercolor painting with yellow, pink, and grey blooming strokes and vertical lines.
(Andrea Zheng • The Student Life)

Gratitude is wildly undervalued — but not in its most common form. 

We can (and often do) express our thankfulness for meaningful aspects of our lives, like our loved ones or life-changing opportunities. The seemingly negative life events, however, are just as important. For me, this decision to choose gratitude, to choose to find appreciation in life’s tragedies, is deeply personal. Today, I feel ready to share that journey with you. 

My propensity for gratitude is not something I have always had. However, it was a negative experience that gave me my start. In October of 2021, just two months into my first year at Pomona College, I made the difficult decision to take a medical leave of absence. I was bitter and isolated, living at home and working full-time once I was physically able to, while my friends were together and continuing their education. 

But when I had submitted my documents to officially return and restart my first year this past fall, I came to the realization that taking a leave of absence was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I would have hated to admit it at the time, but the only way for me to improve my physical health was to take myself out of an environment where I wouldn’t get the chance to recover, which meant going home.

Around that time, I also figured out what I really wanted to study, so having a fresh start on my academics gave me the opportunity to explore my newfound interests. Even though taking that leave was one of the lowest points of my life, I am forever grateful for it. I may still be chronically ill, but learning from my previous experience gave me the skills and confidence to come back.

Yes, gratitude can even stem from less-than-ideal experiences. For example, in these situations, I am not only grateful for the experience, but also that it gives me a way to learn more about myself (and my actions) and use it to improve my life — and from there, the lives of those around me.

The situations I’m referring to are those which are rarely advertised as something to be grateful for. For example: having a fault or mistake pointed out to you. I can say with confidence that not many people want to acknowledge their flaws. So, why am I telling you to be grateful for them? This situation shows that the person telling me is someone who cares enough to want me to know, but that I am always learning and changing. Besides, if we always stayed the same, what fun would that be? How would we ever experience personal growth?

However contradictory the idea of gratitude for negativity may sound, I have learned that I am able to gain much insight and strength from seeing how I navigate stressful and upsetting situations. More often than not, we neglect to see that gratitude is not just about the past, but the future. 

Research has shown that gratitude can improve our physical and mental well-being. Actively practicing the feeling of thankfulness –– especially in unlikely instances –– can help us counteract our inherent tendencies to try and solve every problem we come across. Because not only is that strategy miserable, it’s also a difficult task. But taking a little time each day to show appreciation for both those around us and for ourselves is easy. So, why not give it a shot? 

Sure, practicing gratitude for uncontestedly positive things might come easier. These are the forms of gratitude practice we are more familiar with. For example, recently, a friend brought me a bottle of Gatorade when I was sick. So, when we got lunch the next day, I arrived with a hand-written thank-you card in hand. Something like a quick stop by my dorm to drop off a drink may seem insignificant, but showing my immense appreciation made the experience more meaningful for both of us. 

As for finding positivity within negativity, avenues are less traditional but equally important. On my end, I started a journal this year. I had previously been adamant about never wanting to write in a journal –– I felt that having a physical manifestation of my negative thoughts was certainly a bad idea. However, writing down the stressful or upsetting things I feel each day is a relief. When I look back at each entry, I can see how much I have been challenged, how much I have overcome and how much I have grown. That sounds like something to be thankful for.

Maybe I’ve become someone who sees more silver linings, but I doubt that it’s something that needs to change. Being thankful for the negative as well as the positive translates into a broader thankfulness for life. 

Dania Anabtawi PO ’26 is from New Haven, Connecticut. She enjoys walking too quickly and going to bed by 9 p.m.

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