The other day I came across a picture by one of my favourite cartoonists, Liana Finck. It was a simple drawing, just a list really, called "My Favourite Things". Included on the list were things like "slugs", "smells", "long boring walks alone", and "fake meat". Finck invited people to comment with their own favourite things, and what followed were 200 tiny lists. I read all of them. They were addictive and fascinating. It felt like there could be infinite things to be thankful for. Like Finck, a few people were thankful for slugs. Several were thankful for nutritional yeast. Several for birds, especially small birds. One was thankful for "my wife when she poots".
I was struck by the lists of favourite things, because a piece of advice I've seen a lot lately is: "Keep a gratitude journal". Meaning: every day, write down the things you're grateful for, you ungrateful sod. Research into gratitude shows that practising it regularly can reduce feelings of stress, improve your relationships and boost your happiness (with the caveat that happiness, like hunger, or the comfiness of hideous shoes, can't be measured, only self-reported). Knowing all that, I've resisted the advice to keep a gratitude journal, because I have an aversion to anything corny, and the gratitude journals I've seen on Instagram rate highly on the cornometer. Candle-lit baths, perfect cups of tea, murderous sunsets, more baths – these are nice things, but they're like cardboard cut-outs of enjoyment; they're the exhibits you'd see in a Museum of Enjoyable Pastimes. Their ubiquity makes them not only corny, but somehow bleak. My other reservation about the gratitude movement is political: in a capitalist society, gratitude seems like a very convenient self-improvement prescription – designed to keep us productive and smiley and complacent, rather than getting angry and agitating for actual change.
Maybe I am just bitter because I don't have a bath and my shower is broken.
But the lists of people's favourite things underneath Finck's drawing felt different. Maybe it's just that most were specific and individual enough to avoid corniness. You could group them, roughly, into categories. There is some overlap, but here's how I mapped it out. (I asked several friends to tell me their favourite things, and found that they fitted into these categories too.)
Things that are comforting, like "the way dogs who are too big to sit in my lap lean their weight against me", "a bag of chips all to myself", "my oversized Nantucket sweatshirt that I don't know how I ended up with" and "a good high five".
Things that provide relief and satisfaction, like "cleaning out clogged drains", "when I understand memes", "a new pen that writes well", "the sound of coffee beans being vacuumed up", "peeling dried wax off skin", and "a really long, satisfying wee".
Things that provide a sense of freedom and lightness, like running in the dark, being on the top level of a parking building, realising that you like someone, going to the library on a Friday night, and "that feeling you get when you're anxious about going somewhere, but halfway there on the train the feeling breaks and you have a euphoric high".
Things that are interesting and a bit thrilling, like stick insects, the wobbly lines at the bottom of swimming pools, watching a helicopter land, and two women looking at photos together and laughing so hard they can't speak.
Things that are beautiful and/or that evoke a sense of awe, like "when the moon is really big and low and near", when the wind rustles in long grasses, and elephants.
Foods that must be kept secret because others might frown upon them, like olive juice, milk in fizzy water, and peanut butter on crumpets.
Ashleigh Young: will I ever get to the top of the hill?
And finally: things that are self-evidently good. In this category we find sleep, having enough money, tea, clean sheets, a good stretch, and "holding my cat in my arms and telling her she's just a baby".
After doing this exercise, I was more open to the idea of practising gratitude. I was moved to pick up my cat and tell him he was just a baby. I thought about things that I'm glad to have around, and I have to concede it's worth trying. The late Oliver Sacks wrote about gratitude towards the end of his life, and how it helped him to see his life "as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts". Today I'm grateful for finding my keys, for Pie Warmer's 2009 album The Fearsome Feeling, for anyone who reads to the end of this column, for people who hand in lost things to the police station, and for when you make someone toast and they say, "this toast is incredible".