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Can Washing Dishes Make You Feel Better?

Research on mindfulness suggests that daily chores may be good for you.

I recently came to realize the importance of routine in my life. It was spring break, and I hadn’t woken up at home for several days. I felt off. And then it dawned on me that I missed doing the dishes. (I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me.) Specifically, I missed my morning routine of waking up before everyone else and emptying the dishwasher. I realized that I enjoy the quiet monotony of putting the clean dishes back in their place. By the time the rest of the family is up and getting ready for the day, the kitchen is in order.

When I mentioned this to a friend the other day, he said it made perfect sense. He was lamenting the fact that he’s drifted away from meditation since having a child. He had a morning routine of waking up and sitting on the cushion before his day got going. But that’s no longer as easy to do. When I responded that I, too, had a daily practice that I felt kept me centered, he didn’t bat an eye. It sounded like what he’d learned at the Zen Center. They used to have jobs, like doing the dishes, as a part of their practice. These chores were opportunities to practice mindfulness.

That got me thinking: Was there empirical evidence that putting away dishes can provide some of the benefits associated with mindfulness? Sure enough, there is. Researchers tested the effects of dishwashing on state mindfulness, positive and negative affect, and perception of time. One group of subjects washed a set of 18 dishes after reading a passage laying out procedures for doing so, and another group did so after reading a passage laying out the importance of presence, reflection, attention, and awareness during the activity. They found that those in the mindfulness condition reported increased mindfulness, reduced nervousness, and increased feelings of inspiration, all while overestimating the time it took them to complete the task.

This study replicated some established findings, but in a novel manner. It showed that contemplative practice joined with a daily task can have some of the same positive effects as contemplative practice of a more rigorous sort. This suggests that both my own experience and the anecdotal evidence from my friend are on to something. Immersing oneself in routine chores can be a way of practicing mindfulness. And it can help “center” you by alleviating negative feelings and increasing positive ones.

Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but maybe the next time I’m on break, I shouldn’t go away. Rather, I should double down on my routine, practicing it with even greater presence, attention, and reflection. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find myself in an even better place once I return to the rat race.

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