Life as Art

How our world shapes who we are and how who we are shapes our world

Zen of the Art of Grocery Shopping

When grocery shopping and peak experience collide

The Fourth of July holiday is a great opportunity to reflect on the abundance - of both opportunities and products - afforded by the American way of life. All too often we take this abundance for granted. Here's an example from my own life:

I used to hate grocery shopping! The problem is that it's a necessary part of life; you have to have food in the pantry unless you want to eat every meal out. But grocery shopping takes valuable time (often on the way home from work, for instance) that could be used for creative work or for something you actually enjoy doing, right? Maybe not. Maybe grocery shopping is creative work.

Years ago, before the collapse of the former Soviet Union, my children's school became involved in a teacher's exchange. Two teachers from our local school went to Moscow for a couple of weeks to observe Russian classrooms while two Russian teachers came to our community to observe teaching practices here, and they stayed with a family in the community.

One day the Russian teachers accompanied their host to the local super market. Their reaction was quite peculiar. After walking down one or two aisles they asked to leave. They then became inexplicably distant toward their host. It turned out that they had been warned by their Soviet handlers that the Americans would expose them to materialistic propaganda such as fake shopping opportunities. The teachers apparently felt they had been taken to a Hollywood-type set that was made to look like a food store, and that all the brightly-colored packages and the huge assortment of produce had been staged for their benefit to undermine their belief in the Communist system. No store, they argued, could compile such a savory variety of goods unless it was part of a propaganda campaign.

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When I heard this story, it literally transformed the way I viewed grocery shopping. Seeing the experience from different eyes (such as those of the Russian teachers), I no longer viewed shopping as a tedious chore; it became - and continues to be - an eye-opening adventure to me. I'm embarrassed that I used to walk down those aisles of colorful offerings without seeing the abundance and variety of sensory pleasure available in this everyday experience. Picking out just the right products to provide delicious and nutritious snacks and meals is actually an art form - one that I now truly look forward to. And I began wondering what other "chores" that I typically either dreaded or simply endured could be transformed into moments of peak experience. The result of this reassessment of the-artist-formerly-known-as-grocery-shopper is that many erstwhile "chores" have now also become artistic opportunities in my eyes.

Many daily activities can be viewed as challenging, rewarding, and as an opportunity for creative performance. Try this exercise: make a list of daily or weekly activities that you consider to be chores. Pick one and then try to increase your appreciation of this task that you previously (until this moment!) considered a boring necessity of your routine. For example, if your task is to dust the house, take time to appreciate each piece of furniture as you dust it. Think back to how you acquired each piece and allow yourself to indulge in memories of that time in your life.

Note the arrangement of your furniture within a room. Move items around if necessary to create a visually pleasing arrangement. Think of each room of your house as a still life. Also, as you move each item on the furniture to dust under it, think about how fortunate you are to have that item. The gratitude you feel for all that you own will increase your intrinsic motivation in the task and you will begin to lose yourself in the work.

If you have a story about how a boring task has been transformed into a pleasurable opportunity to display your creativity, please share it with us! Also, if you are able to try the exercise I described and it's helpful, let us know about that as well. The goal is to increase the amount of time you spend in peak enjoyment moments.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is an instructor and researcher at Harvard University, where she teaches creativity and abnormal psychology.

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