When I bought a house ten years ago, I also bought place settings for six and silverware for twelve. Then I developed a minor fascination with bone China and bought settings for eight. I probably had four dozen glasses. About once a month or so, all of these dishes would be piled up in and around my sink, begging to be cleaned. I didn't have a lot of dinner parties-- I just hated doing dishes so much that I'd procrastinate until washing became a full day event. Those days were some of my least favorite.
A few days ago, I was doing the dishes for the six of us that ate dinner. There were pots, pans, plates, serving utensils, and glasses. The works. For the first time ever, I found myself enjoying doing the dishes. I could appreciate the warm water on my hands and the shine in the pot when it was clean. When I washed everything that wasn't dishwasher safe, I started handwashing the things that could have just gone in the dishwasher. It wasn't fun exactly, but it was so enjoyable that I actually found myself looking forward to washing the dishes the next day.
Work has become the same way. I don't love all aspects of it equally, but when I wake up and know I have a tough day ahead of me, I feel great. Pant of it is that I know the day will end with a nice chunk of progress made, but most of it is the actual act of working. I love it. I can't wait to face off with a bug that's been bothering me for weeks, trace it through all of our code, and fix it. It's relaxing, like an internal Swedish massage.
My friend Constance wrote me an email today. She was talking about me with her sister and some friends, describing my hyperfocus on work, learning, and other productive things. An excerpt from her email:
"As I was talking about you, they got the impression you were too strict on yourself, your routine didn't allow time for happiness... I almost described you as an overly anxious person, which isn't you at all, at least not from what I've seen."
In comments I sometimes see people encouraging me to have more fun, not work so hard, etc. I get where these ideas come from, but they couldn't be farther from the truth. I don't get stressed at all with doing this stuff. I love it.
Enjoyment and happiness comes from attitude and process, not from setting or result. It took me a really long time to actually believe this and to internalize it. It always seemed like a hippie truism that wasn't actually true. But when I washed those dishes and felt the surprise of realizing that I was enjoying it, something clicked into place for me and completed the puzzle.
I had a dream last night where I was put into a North Korean prison. They took my phone away and gave me this weird North Korean phone that couldn't access the internet. I was in for life with no chance of escape and no way to contact anyone I know. You know how I felt? I was happy. My brain immediately started thinking of cool things to do in prison like work out, write books, and share stories with the other inmates.
Every day, I generate a certain amount of happiness internally. I think about how fortunate I am to have good people in my life, great experiences in my past, and great challenges ahead of me. My experience of being alive on this earth is enough to make me completely happy every day. I'm not immune to outside forces, but I think of my happiness as a ratchet-- things can make me happier, but they can't make me less happy.
So when I'm washing those dishes, the positive aspects of that process make me a little bit happier, but the grime on my hands or the hassle of scraping burnt food doesn't have any effect on me at all. I let the positive parts cloud out those details. It's a work in progress for me, but I try to be fully present whenever I do anything, whether it's washing dishes or drinking tea with friends. It's that whole commitment to the present that allows me to see all of the positive details of each experience.
Even when I'm hard on myself, it makes me happier. It's not negative self talk or discouragement-- it's encouragement to step up my game and be the best I can. I love that feeling of making a challenge to myself and rising to the occasion.
I wasn't born with this attitude. I was a chronic procrastinator, someone who was quick to give up or do a mediocre job on something, and someone who always looked for the easy way out. I got here through years of self experimentation, and through closely monitoring my happiness and my thought processes.
It seems that most things people do to become more happy are actually making them less happy. The problem is that in their search for happiness, many people chase stimulation. Stimulation is mentally noisy. It drowns out your thoughts and the subtleties of the present. It makes your brain feel happy in the same way someone renting a limo can feel rich. When that feeling fades, you chase stimulation again to get it back. It's like a drug.
Internal happiness and the happiness that can be milked from daily experience are subtle. They're found only in the quiet that exists in the absence of stimulation.
I used to think that monks lived ascetic lives as a form of self flagellation, but I don't think so anymore. I think that they eat plain food, wear plain clothes, and abstain from various indulgences because it helps them remain in a state conducive to sustainable happiness.
Want to try something interesting? Decide that you're going to remove stimulation for a couple months. Eat the same exact food every day. Don't watch TV or play video games. Don't drink or do drugs. Pick out seven (or fewer) very similar outfits and wear them exclusively. Don't do anything for fun, but try to find the fun in everything. Don't date. When you have a moment of boredom, don't try to fill it.
It will be a hard two months, and unlike many challenges I might suggest, I don't think you'll love it so much that you'll permanently adopt it. But I do think that it will change your perspective and build up your ability to generate happiness within.
I haven't done this challenge explicitly, but my work schedule pushed me into it without me even knowing. Rather than the sacrifice that I would have anticipated it being, it has been a real pleasure and has brought me a focused calm I never had before. Plus I like doing the dishes now.
Photo is from the MFA in Boston.
Two more days in NY and then I'm heading back to SF. Looking forward to about three months of my routine before going to Japan in the spring.
First thought to mind is Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning where he spends years in a concentration camp and yet finds a way to stay present and find meaning. Based on the amount of pain surrounding him, it's more about the internal freedom to choose how you respond to events and find meaning in anything including suffering.
Second thought is meditation. It's probably the most unstimulated activity. However, anyone who goes through a long retreat reaches that breaking point when they realize that joy is an internal state not dependent on anything externally. Where just eating a banana is like the greatest experience in the world. I think a lot of today's stimulation is like sugar or HFCS. It's so abundant today in everything from texting to apps to facebook and video/music. People lose their natural sensitivity to staying present and thereby lose the joy of just taking a walk, being alive, and doing mundane tasks. I hear people say that they couldn't live with their phone, and you understand just how far people have been imprisoned by illusions rather than living in reality.
Having said that, it's still a difficult feat for me to stay present. Although I've actually always enjoyed washing dishes more than any other cleaning chore.
This is a great post Tynan.
What are the three changes (or eliminations) you've made that had the biggest impact?
And on a more general note. I'm curious what your view is on attachment. I know you're opponent of attachment towards objects. What about people? And partners?
I don't know if I have a great answer for the biggest three things. I think most of my gains stem from really thinking logically about things. Is it okay to be single for years? Is it okay to eat the same thing every day? Without conscious thought, knee jerk reactions to these things take over.
As far as attachment goes, my philosophy is to fully enjoy whatever I have, but never need it absolutely. This sounds cold, but I think it's the opposite. I like the idea of a woman loving me and being devoted to me, but knowing that even without me she'd be fine. I'd like to feel the same way about her
Whats funny is I just finished enjoying doing the dishes. Rocking out to some music along the way. Then I come online and check my email and find this post about learning to love doing the dishes. You've really inspired me in the past year and a half. I was always a positive person, but you've helped me in a lot more ways and I thank you for that.
What i do suggest though is trying Psilocybin Mushrooms. It's made me such a more active person in life, always wanting to work and do more things. It lets me control my own thoughts. I've realized so many things about how the world works and how everything always works out. Life really is just a ride. You have no idea what it does until you try it. Do all the research you can on them and you will see.
I like this post.
"I was a chronic procrastinator, someone who was quick to give up or do a mediocre job on something, and someone who always looked for the easy way out."
That's me. That's why I failed to create an iPhone app for TaskSmash. I couldn't keep up the motivation and discipline. I know I had the ability, and of course I said I would do it, but I just couldn't follow through. (The one bit of solace I had was the idea that some of the world's greatest hackers, inventors, and innovators are super lazy and/or procrastinators - that's why they had to think outside the box and invent a short-cut that improves people's lives.)
I'm working to fix this. Like you, I'm on a quest of daily self-improvement. Some day very soon, I'll be a lean code-producing machine, and maybe I'll have another opportunity to make a sweet mobile app for you. And I'll be truly happy and balanced while doing it.
Sounds to me likes it's time to read St John of the Cross or Thomas Merton. I gave up TV, dating, excess a few years ago. nothing can compare to the happiness of having little.
Tynan, do you thin these thoughts applies for everything?
I mean, right now I'm looking forward to change my life by leaving the corporate job I have right now and doing what I most love. What I do is pushing myself in the evening/night working in my personal project, and again in the day doing what I feel is a boring corporate work. So, do you think that you could start to love working in something that isn't your passion?
And excuse me if I doesn't express myself well, english is not my main language.
Doing astrological charts is a hobby; this is off subject but would you mind sharing date, time and place of birth-strictly your choice.
I've always enjoyed doing the dishes, I find it very therapeutic and the warm soapy water is so nice in the cold winter nights. My approach is slightly different to yours Tynan.
Rather than my mind being present on the doing of the dishes, my body goes into autopilot - disconnecting my mind and I am able to then really focus and meditate on my latest thoughts and ideas.
Tynan - Question for you... you said that you bought a house, but you now live in an RV. What happened to the house?
I sold it. I also had a condo and another RV in between the house and my current RV. Each one was smaller than the next. As an aside-- I would never buy a house again unless money was no object. There are so many hidden costs of time and money that it really makes very little sense unless you're certain you'll be in one place for a long time.
Seven years ago, I wrote a post called "How to Be Happy. Always." It's pretty poorly written, but starts off with an important concept-- we live in a society where happiness is the number one priority. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one really questions that, but maybe we should. Is happiness really the best goal we can come up with?
In the time that's elapsed between when I wrote that post and now, I've thought a lot about happiness, and I still think that maximizing it is a bad idea. But before I get into that, let's talk a little bit about what happiness is.
Happiness is an good state of mind. It allows you to be optimistic, to see the good in people, and to be productive. On the other end of the spectrum, when you're very unhappy, you have a lot of barriers between things like productivity and socialization. Clearly, being happy is much better than being unhappy. It's important to be happy. Is there such a thing as being too happy? I don't think so. I've never seen someone make a mistake because he was just too happy.
So what's my problem with maximizing happiness, then? Well, it's the method, mostly.
For years I've been pondering what could be the key to living a happier, more fulfilled life. Today, I think I have the answer.
Forget about money, fame, fancy cars, relationships, exercise, family, traveling, new experiences or even good health. Because none of that matters if you don't know how to appreciate it.