Try the “grates”: Five fingers, instant gratitude.

Oprah does it every day. Scientists say it will make us live longer. I haven’t yet seen a claim that being grateful will make your hair shinier or shrink your thighs, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

Here’s my confession: I’ve always had a secret problem with gratitude. On the surface, I seem like any other perfectly thankful person. I write my fair share of thank-you notes, and I always offer a cheery “thanks a lot” to the cashier at the grocery store.

My interior monologue is not all cashmere wraps and scented candles, though. I lean toward the skeptical side (OK, right on the borderline of “grouchy”). If it’s a beautiful day, I understand I’m supposed to be thankful and maybe write myself a little note: “Sunshine!” (Don’t forget the happy face.) But if I rise to find it’s raining frogs, those bedbugs are back and there’s a hole in my roof, I often stray into territory where thanklessness seems a sensible option. To me, being thankful for everything can feel the same as being thankful for nothing.

I began to see the situation from a different perspective recently, after meeting my college-student daughter for a quick, midday cup of coffee. She is taking a crazy, science-y courseload that made me twitchy just to hear about it, and she was toting along a (virtual) laundry bag of woes: no time, no sleep, cold pizza, messy roommates. As she talked, I nodded and sympathized, thinking of my own internal list of stress-inducing torments.

And then I stopped: “Listen to us! Our lives cannot be as bad as they sound. There must be something good happening. I have an idea.”

Her face telegraphed: “Oh, great! One of Mom’s ideas.” But she kept listening.

“We have to find some things in our life that are not totally awful, and maybe are even a little bit OK.” I held up my hand, fingers spread: “We’ll find five a day. And we’ll share them with each other — no excuses.’ ”

She agreed, and we began. Our short daily lists found their way to one another’s inboxes. She was grateful for an extra hour of sleep. I rejoiced when I met a deadline, trying not to worry about all of the others stacking up. We kept going. Our “grates” messages often miss each other by only a few hours, sent at the end of her late-night study hours and the beginning of my early workday.

Her lists included: warm socks, McDonald’s French fries, a fast Internet connection, hearing the train that runs through her neighborhood as she falls asleep and having a door that closes (those roommates again, I think). I’ve been thankful for eating leftover soup for breakfast, a new (albeit hideous) pair of shoes that keep my feet from hurting and keeping windows open to hear bikers’ shout “whee” as they descend the big hill outside.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m learning that Oprah is right. Knowing I’ve committed to finding five things keeps me looking for them all day, and knowing I’ll be sharing those moments has helped me to keep up with the practice. What I’m realizing is that this exercise is less about being thankful and more about paying attention. When faced with that perfect, sunshine-y day, I still realize it’s just a circumstance of weather, and not shining exclusively for my benefit. But still, I witness it, so I add it to my list, as specifically as possible: “The way the sun was coming through the last few leaves as I turned the corner on my walk.” And then I hit “send.”

This sharing of five-finger gratitude is a small thing, but like many small things done consistently, it seems to be building into something bigger. And in the course of appreciating the world around us, we’ve been able to appreciate more about one other — warm socks, soup for breakfast, train noises and all.

“Each other,” it turns out, is the best possible reason for a mom and a daughter to be grateful.

 

Julie Kendrick is a writer in Minneapolis.