Happiness researchers are mystified. Almost nothing we think will make us happy actually has that effect: not higher incomes, not bigger houses, not having kids, and not even winning the lottery. Sure, money helps, but you're more likely to say you're happy living in a poor country than a rich one. Exercise can make you feel happier for a short time, but then, so can napping. Where is the sure route to fulfillment?
Bliss has long been the grail of disaffected soul-seekers, but its elusiveness has much broader implications. New books like Derek Bok's "The Politics of Happiness" and Carol Graham's "Happiness Around the World" argue the point. If little that a government purports to advance - higher wages, home buying, and free wi-fi, for instance - yields a measurable hike in happiness, what are the global implications?
Everyone has a notion about where to find happiness, but no one seems to have a hold on it. The bigger we make the question, the more likely we are to overlook the answer. I think we might as well give up seeking the good life and just do the laundry. Yes, the laundry. In my own experience as a mid-life convert to the spiritual practice of laundry, I can attest that everyone's least favorite chore delivers some surprisingly sage and satisfying rewards.
These are my top four reasons why doing the laundry can make you happy, healthy and wise:
1. Someone has to do it. And you're the only one you have to work with. Facing this truth could be the biggest aha moment in your life. Instead of expecting someone or something else to change your situation, only you can do it. A full hamper reminds us that running away from the things we would rather avoid makes our lives feel like an endless chore. Face it. Taking responsibility for your own well-being is the first step in transformation. Doing even half a load makes a difference, because big changes occur little by little.
2. You can stop looking elsewhere. We spend most of our time looking fruitlessly for more meaning, more money, and greater purpose. What we already have doesn't seem good enough. When we expect ordinary things to be more rewarding than they are, or when we devalue them as less than they are, that keeps us at arm's length from our own lives. Sort the whites from the colors and the heavy duty from the delicates. Your active attention to the matter at hand washes away the sense of inadequacy and confusion.
What's to look for anyway? The instructions are always right in front of you. The tag inside a garment tells you exactly how to care for what you hold in your hands. Not just clothing, but very bit of life comes with instructions when we are mindful enough to notice. Doing it well may take more work than we'd like, but the effort is always worth it in the long run.
3. It's cheaper than therapy. You can learn a lot about yourself by how you do the laundry. Notice the difference in the way you might tenderly handle your own or your children's clothing versus the resentment you feel about the piles your spouse leaves on the floor. Watch the way you sentimentalize a baby bootie and take offense at a pair of boxer shorts. We cling to things we like and reject what we don't like when in the end it's all the same: a blend of cotton and polyester. Laundry gives us an honest encounter with ourselves and our troublesome judgments, frustrations and fury. Seeing clearly is how we become wise.
So let's be straightforward about it. Everything shrinks, fades and falls apart. Nothing stays brand-new. The most precious things we have are fashioned of flimsy fabric. Be mindful with each moment you have and you will experience your life in a different way.
4. No one turns their nose up at a clean pair of socks. Doing the laundry is practical, and that's what makes it so gratifying. No one turns their nose up at a clean pair of socks, a fresh-smelling t-shirt, or laundered sheets. When you have them, it's called the good life. You enrobe your life in dignity when you give yourself clean laundry.
Like the wad of bills left in a pants pocket, or the spare change that turns up in the bottom of the dryer, there's a treasure to be found where you'd least expect it: the laundry. You might just find that what you think you're missing - happiness - is no farther than the bottom of the basket. What's more, you'll never run out. Every day brings the chance to slow down, pay attention, take care and engage intimately with the fabric of your own life. You'll be happy you did, and so will everyone around you.
Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest and the author of two books: Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, and Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood.