Most of us live with a kind of FOMO (fear of missing out), usually thinking we’d be better off if we were somewhere else doing something different. Yet, contrary to this notion we have of The Good Life and our constant anxiety of feeling like we’re not quite leading it, most of our actual, real life is spent doing quite ordinary things —making breakfast, doing laundry, mowing the lawn, changing diapers, brushing our teeth. We usually try to get these ordinary things “out of the way” so we can get to the good stuff, the fun stuff, so we can really live!
But where did we get the notion that folding laundry or vacuuming isn’t really living the good life, yet going out for coffee or shooting baskets or camping is?
A study by Harvard psychologist Matthew Killingsworth used an app called Track Your Happiness to see what activities make people feel that life is satisfying. Turns out that the variable that determined when people reported being happy was simply whether they were totally engaged in what they were doing. Apparently, it didn’t actually matter what people were doing — laundry, basketball, cooking, listening to music — if they reported that they were paying attention to what they were doing, their self-reported happy score was higher! If they were doing something but were distracted and not really present for it, they reported a low happy score for that moment. (The study is still going on, and you can download that app if you’re interested. You can read his early conclusions in a report called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.”)
We can probably recognize that calm sense of presence from when we are immersed in favorite hobbies, like working on our cars or doing art, sewing, cooking. But for most activities, it takes actual practice to train our minds to regularly stay focused on that we are doing. It’s not easy but it is simple, like training a puppy — stay. Stay. Stay. It’s not that there is a problem when our minds wander; it’s just that rarely being present to our own experiences makes us cranky and always dissatisfied, chasing after something "out there' and never finding it.
This is the first practice of mindfulness and worth experimenting with.
You could try an experiment where you allow yourself to just fold the laundry when you are folding the laundry. Take a breath. Slow down a tad and look at the shirt. Feel what it feels like to smooth out the wrinkles. Place it gently into the drawer where you or your loved one will find it later, all neat and folded and beautiful, in its raggedy T-shirt kind of way. You’ll likely notice restlessness and agitation. That tells you that you can use that moment to create a new habit, practicing a shift in thinking. Maybe the displeasure is not actually in the particulars of the task itself but simply in that edgy habit of imagining that you ought to be doing something different than what you are doing. It’s a mental habit for most of us and can be changed with simple practice.
No need to make this a new project or destination that you’ll get to someday (Someday I’ll be mindful). It’s really an invitation to let yourself just be where you are, doing exactly what you’re doing right now (reading this article). Take a deep breath and just allow yourself to just be where you are, doing what you are doing. See how it feels!