A Game to Get You Un-Stuck on Crappy Feelings

I started doing this when I needed it, and now I use it all the time

My friend Anna once joked that before we both got married (not to each other), we dated each other for years (open relationship, technically speaking). We would do lovely dinners at spots we’d added to our mental lists, saving them for each other. We’d day-drink Sancerre on weekends and then take long, chilly walks through lower Manhattan, telling each other everything. We went to Miami once and shared a bed. Our early thirties were super fun! And also hard.

At our dinners, we sometimes played a game we called Five Nice Things. It is what it sounds like: You take turns naming things that are nice. Five is the number. It can be a thing that makes you happy, a compliment for the other person, a win at work, “This broccoli is tasty,” whatever. It’s a bit sappy, but it’s not the sappiest, and the rules were: Don’t overthink it, and be specific. We’d roll it out in other settings: group hangs, work, whatnot. It was, generally speaking, a hit. Even Eeyores can get into it if you bring to the game your Tigger energy. But it was most meaningful when it was just the two of us.

We named the game, but we didn’t invent it, obviously. It’s just a less-corny name for a gratitude exercise, which is a practice as old as the Buddha. The game has the power to knock out a temporary funk. Or a big one. There seems to be some science to support this.

Here’s a thing that is not nice, and also true: The vast majority of people in the United States die when they are quite old. (If you like looking at data, you can see the breakdown by age here.) All death brings great grief, and the point I am about to make does not discount that; it’s just different. We are a species whose attitudes are informed by norms. When someone you love dies when they are not old, it is not normal. And when that happens, a thin veil goes up between you and most other people.

You ask yourself: Did someone else put up that veil, scared of catching death? Or did you, scared that your pain might be seen? I think it’s a combination of both, and I think this is fine. As was said to me recently by a friend facing early, anticipatory grief (I am paraphrasing): “I feel lonely. But people are people, and death can be scary.”

There are people with whom that veil lifts, with whom death is less scary, maybe because they’ve seen it. We tend to find each other. This usually, but not always, occurs with people who have lost someone when that person was not old.

When Anna and I started the game, my older brother was in his last months of this life. (I have written about him before, and I will again, as he is always with me, the friend I cannot see.) Before this, Anna’s vibrant, healthy, best-friend mother had recently passed unexpectedly, the always-there friend that she cannot see.

There is something sweet and unspoken about spending time with someone for whom the veil is lifted. And to play Five Nice Things with them is a treasure. And it’s not just for us, but take it from us: We only have a tiny spot of time together. We can notice, or we can not notice, nice things. I recommend the former.

So I’m going to go first. Then you go. Let me know what you come up with.

  1. Lemons. I love lemons. I am drinking lemon water as I write this, and I love it. I have read lemons help with digestion. I am usually a “trust but verify” person when it comes to health advice, but I don’t care, because I love lemons, and I drink lemon water because I like the taste.
  2. Yesterday, two people offered me help in very specific ways. One offered tactical support (“I want to help you do this, here are my ideas”), the other asked how I was. I said I was feeling quiet, but fine. She said, “Let me know if that changes. I’m here if you want to call.” I called. These are two nice ways to change a person’s day, and I am grateful for both.
  3. The weird little health food store in my neighborhood is back! In the early days of the pandemic, a fitness center in my hood literally collapsed into rubble, sparking area rumors of mob-related foul play. More relevant to my immediate interests was the fact that the fitness center shared a wall with the health food store I’d been going to for 15 years. As you would expect, it shuttered. I assumed for good. I was wrong! The owner — who smokes cigarettes, has the skin of a teenager, and knows a lot about vitamins — is very happy. I’ve been worried about him for months. This is a nice thing.
  4. The rain. People hate the rain, and I do not get it. (Irish blood, etc.) More than loving the rain, which I do, I love the way the sky changes when the barometric pressure drops. When we moved into our new rental last year, I remember saying to my husband, “We have so much sky here.” “We do,” he said, and that was sweet.
  5. I am grateful to all of you with whom that veil lifts. And I am especially grateful to Anna.

VP, Editorial @Medium. I write and edit, usually in that order.

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