Stimulation and How I Learned to Love Dishwashing

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.





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