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How to Enjoy Life

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I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m a guest at a holiday get-together, once dinner is over and we begin to appreciate the scale of the impending cleanup, I’m always relieved to be given a clear job to do: collect all the wine glasses, wipe down the table, corral the recyclables.

Even scrubbing a stubborn roasting pan is a welcome assignment, at least partly because it relieves you from the alternative, which is to sit there feeling unhelpful while your host does everything. But even aside from that, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in the doing of a task, if you’re not determined to hate it.

Yet in other contexts, similarly basic tasks can seem annoying and unpleasant. Sometimes, out of protest, I leave a stack of stray books on the bottom stair for three days, or a basket of laundered socks unfolded until my sock drawer runs low.

Why not take the same pleasure in those little jobs? It’s all context I suppose—if life’s menial tasks could somehow all be part of a dinner party cleanup effort, every day would be a chain of small pleasures.

The habit of taking even mild pleasure in such tasks would be life-changing, because most of what we do during a typical day isn’t done for enjoyment’s sake: laundry, exercise, office work, dishes, dusting. We do these things because they make life better in some less immediate sense; they’re rewarding, but not necessarily as you do them.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the adage goes, and that means the majority of our lives are spent doing not-especially-enjoyable maintenance work (cleaning, earning, fixing, organizing) in order to support  the especially-enjoyable stuff (leisure time, meals, get-togethers, creative endeavors and personal projects) we do with the remaining minority of our time.

We all want to enjoy life, and not just a fraction of it. But if you Google “How to enjoy life,” most of the images you’ll see are symbols of those exceptional, peak-enjoyment activities: hammocks, beaches, candlelit dinners, and scenic hikes.

Clearly the vision we have of enjoying life has nothing to do with the way we actually spend most of it: doing necessary but unremarkable things in front of desks, stoves, laundry baskets, sinks, and grocery store shelves. Sometimes this pile of necessary but unremarkable activities seems so great that there’s little time left for the enjoyment-and-relaxation type activities. 

This is a false dichotomy though. Life’s enjoyment isn’t all locked up the things we want to do. There’s enjoyment available to us in almost all of the obligatory maintenance stuff too. It is possible to enjoy standing in line at the deli, sweeping the floor, turning the compost pile, sitting in traffic, and untangling Christmas lights—unless we see those parts of life simply as obstacles to the enjoyable parts, as we often do.

On some level we know that already. Even if it happens only occasionally, we all know what it’s like to enjoy unglamorous moments, such as the folding of a tea towel, the tying of a shoe, or the shining of a sink. But when we’re fixated on getting them over with, we tend to see our chores, obligations, and in-between moments as being devoid of enjoyability.

To the mind that’s looking for it, there is pleasure to be taken in the warmth of dishwater, the fresh air on a walk to the store, and the relaxing sensation of sitting in a chair, even if that chair is in the waiting room at the oil change place. We don’t do these things—or most things—for reasons of pleasure, but pleasure is available in most things.

There’s nothing tricky about finding this pleasure either, if the intention is there. A simple intention to enjoy the task or experience before you, no matter how dull it seems at first, is enough to illuminate its enjoyable qualities.

This hour you’re about to spend tidying the attic—what enjoyment can you find in it? Well, you might find that sliding the boxes into neat, right-angled stacks is satisfying. You might like the sensation of having cleared one side of the room so you can sweep the floor with ease. It may feel good just to use your muscles. Or it may just be a refreshingly quiet place to be working on something.

The enjoyable qualities in these tasks coexist with any difficulty or unpleasantness. Few of our obligatory tasks are purely difficult and unpleasant, but if we think of them that way, as we’re trained to by pop culture and many of the people around us, we’ll fixate on the crappy aspects and overlook the pleasure in it.

Quite often the tasks we regard as awful really only have one truly unpleasant part. Taking the garbage out, for example, only entails about five seconds I find objectionable: the moment at which I tie the bag shut, when my face is near the invisible stink-cloud that comes out. Everything else—carrying it to the door, putting on my boots, walking out to the back, depositing it in the bin, walking back—these are easy to enjoy, or at least not to resent.

There may not be as much enjoyment available in twenty minutes of waiting in line at the DMV as in twenty minutes of eating cake. But that doesn’t matter—given that we will spend most of our lives in those sorts of obligatory moments, we’re leaving way too much on the table by assuming enjoyment can only be found later and elsewhere.

All of this might sound ridiculous, or even desperate—trying to enjoy taking out the garbage or lint-rolling a sweater. But looking for enjoyment in unremarkable moments is no more radical than “Look for the good in people,” and is just as transformative. We just don’t hear it as often.

The pleasures you find may be mild, but the intention to find them makes a drastic difference to how it feels to do almost anything. You’ll probably discover that we have a natural appreciation for very subtle things—the click of a latch closing, the feel of laundered cotton, the evening din of a grocery store, the tiny punch of a thumbtack through notepaper—and that life offers hundreds of these pleasures daily. There’s even pleasure to be found in the simple motions of standing up, sitting down, and putting an object in its place.

The real transformative effect isn’t in the subtle pleasures you can find when you look (although they’re pretty great). It’s in the completely different way we’re aiming our minds in ordinary moments. We’re looking into our experience, not outwards from it, for interest and pleasure.

We can easily spend nine-tenths of our lives trying to appreciate the free time, hammocks, bike rides, and coffee breaks to come, or we can spend that time—which amounts to decades—appreciating what is already happening. And there’s nothing subtle about the difference it makes.

***

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński

{ 54 Comments }

Alok Jha December 5, 2018 at 11:53 pm

Genius article. Loved it. It’s good to be reminded of this simple but often overlooked truth. What a great potential lies in recognizing this fact and living your life in accordance with it.

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Belladonna Took December 6, 2018 at 12:48 am

This reminds me of what Brother Lawrence taught, in “The Practice of the Presence of God”.

Also, seriously, how do you so often manage to write exactly what I need to read precisely when I most need to read it? I’ve been feeling so sad and overwhelmed lately, by all the little bits and pieces that have got out of control and messy and by the need to take control and declutter and reorganize, and the constant urge to turn my back on it and bury my face in a book is often also overwhelming. This reminder of the simple but intensely sensual pleasure of putting fresh sheets on a bed, sweeping a floor, preparing a meal or merely clearing a space … well, I needed it. Thank you.

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Gladys December 6, 2018 at 5:51 am

Ditto! Thank you David!

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:27 am

The end of the year certainly entails a lot of sweeping, cleaning, decluttering and menial stuff — perfect for practicing finding the enjoyment.

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Gina Wings December 6, 2018 at 1:34 am

Spot on!
Yet another wonderful post!
Life is poetry in motion – once we decide to see it that way. Beauty – but all other things as well – is (are) in the eye of beholder. It is comforting to know that, when it comes to perception, we are in charge.

Thank you, David! You made my day!

Gina

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:29 am

And when you look poetry, at least the good stuff, it’s almost always about the beauty in the mundane and familiar. Bad poetry is usually about great loves and other exceptional experiences.

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Zoe December 6, 2018 at 1:42 am

Ever since my son was born three months ago, my entire perspective of what’s enjoyable has shifted. Getting to walk anywhere without pushing a pram or carrying baby stuff is a treat. I get very envious of other people who have whole hours in the day that they can choose to fill entirely as they wish. Being a parent is awesome but so draining and demanding. I guess I just have to enjoy nappy changes instead… :-)

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Anne December 6, 2018 at 6:30 am

I hear you. It gets better and better. My son is 3 years now and life is much more comfortable and pleasant than at 3 months.

If you can enjoy nappy changes, that would work. If not, that’s okay, too. You’re doing the hardest job in the world, you get a little slack. :-)

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:31 am

We’re all prone to the grass-is-greener effect, which is essentially fetishizing the experiences we can’t have, or can’t have yet. But there are always experiences we are having, and most of them offer enjoyment if we can let go of the idea of doing something easier to enjoy.

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Imran Chaudhry December 6, 2018 at 2:17 am

That is so well written and inspiring!

I use a daily ToDo list app and I find a lot of pleasure in logging what needs to be done and then crossing them off as I make progress through them.

One thing I’ve started doing on weekend is making a bullet point list of everything I’ve done on the weekend – I just enjoy reflecting over all I did, even the mundane stuff, and it’s then easier to recount to my work buddies with a smile when on Monday they say ” good weekend?” :)

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:33 am

The feeling of accomplishment is one pleasure we get from unremarkable tasks, but it does only come once the experience is over. Can you find enjoyment inside the task too? I’ve found that the to-do list is a good place to set the intention to find enjoyment — I look at the next thing I need to do, and see it as an opportunity to enjoy myself (as well as get the thing done), and it changes the experience of doing almost everything.

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Ragnar December 6, 2018 at 2:41 am

Thanks for this David.

We seem to be thinking about similar things recently. I used to daydream about a career that I would magically enjoy every part of. Now I am manufacturing not just a career I will like, which aligns with my core values, but working on my personality and trying to get better at enjoying the “mundane”.

A simple thing that has helped me get a little bit more grounded, calmer, and happier, is taking some time to be grateful every single day.

So far, I am doing it right before I sleep, and during my daily lunch walks. (The walking part, is also new, probably helping as well.) And it’s showing up in a lot of ways, like spontaneous moments of gratitude when spotting a sun set, or when catching a glimpse of the Tokyo skyline at night.

I feel lucky & grateful that I am able to do this sincerely now, whereas a couple of years ago I would have struggled to suppress a cynical laugh..

What I struggle with, has a lot to with dealing with procrastination & bad planning so that I feel rushed to do something, or fear that I won’t be able to deliver the value I wanted…

I am sometimes able to enjoy menial tasks like washing dishes by focusing my energy on the feeling of the sponge & soap water against my skin, or trying to make it into a “dance” by improvising a new & very inefficient way to do it.. but I am only able to get myself to do this when I have the headspace, the mental wherewithall to get this done.

So I feel like yes, I need to stick to “happiness”/”mindfulness” habits like gratitude & meditation, but also overcome the issues I have with procrastination, planning & priorities, to eliminate unnecessary stress & a “negative factor” that I see in myself.

I am a work in progress, but at least I am learning to accept that fact, and even enjoy the process.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:40 am

This does tie in directly to procrastination, and has helped me procrastinate less. There are lots of reasons we procrastinate, and a big one, maybe the main one, is that we associate the task at hand to some kind of pain we expect from it. Maybe it’s the pain of not doing a good job, or getting stuck, or having to do something uncomfortable. Coming to a task with an intention to find what enjoyment there is hidden in it can counteract a lot of that aversive feeling, and give you a kind of sporting attitude about it. Try it first with smaller things.

And I can’t say enough about developing a serious mindfulness meditation practice. It trains you to get curious about our aversion towards certain experiences, and makes it a more interesting proposition to do them anyway and see what actually happens (and it never happens quite like you expect or fear it will, which is reassuring).

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John Varney December 6, 2018 at 4:07 am

Great article, David, as ever.

Nobody can oblige you to do what you choose to do.
In choosing to get on with simple necessary tasks you find freedom.

Thank you for another wonderful insight.

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Gladys December 6, 2018 at 6:09 am

Right topic, always the right time. It’s amazing! Thank you! Also, are you coming up on 10 years? I hope you reflect happily knowing people like me look forward to every ‘next post’.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:41 am

Yup it will be ten years this March

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Michael Alan Gambill December 6, 2018 at 6:42 am

It is the proverbial stopping to smell the roses, but it’s just not the flowers of life but also the “trash” we stop to enjoy. Much appreciated thoughts, as always.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:41 am

Haha… It’s important to stop and smell the trash bag!

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SavingNinja December 6, 2018 at 7:04 am

I absolutely love this post. It’s a notion that I haven’t thought about in this way before. I’ve always tried to be mindful and positive with my thoughts to not get stressed or anxious and be happier when things go awry, but using that same technique to promote enjoyability in every task? I love it.

Thank you for sharing, I can’t wait to take the bins out tonight :)

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weenie December 6, 2018 at 7:55 am

Can you take my bins out too, @SavingNinja? :-)

I think can really benefit from what you write, because at the moment, there are only 2 chores I don’t mind doing (washing up and vacuuming) – I detest everything else and if I can learn to find some sort of joy in doing them, that will be a huge bonus, so thanks!

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:44 am

I suspect you’ll find that it’s the detesting that makes up 95% of what sucks about them. So many tasks I’ve put off turn out to be a cinch, or even a pleasure, when I’m able to come to them without resentment.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:43 am

It sounds silly, but it really can make you look forward to things, even just a little bit, that you’ve always dreaded and resented. It’s actually okay to turn our attention towards boring/unpleasant experiences, and almost invariably we find there’s a lot to like about them, and little that’s truly awful.

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Emily December 6, 2018 at 7:23 am

Very nice, thank you.

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Elle December 6, 2018 at 7:39 am

Wonderful post! I really relate to this and now feel a little less weird about how happy and relaxed I sometimes feel unloading the dishwasher or buying groceries.
I recently read this article on the joys of “puttering,” and while not quite the same I think they complement each other nicely.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-introverts-corner/201811/the-profound-pleasure-puttering

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:44 am

You aren’t weird, just wise!

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Jennifer December 6, 2018 at 8:01 am

This. I’m with Belladonna. I get a post in my overcrowded e-mail box that reminds me of the beauty in just living life.
Here’s one of my favorite poems, brought to mind when I was caring for my mother at the end of her life:
Otherwise
Jane Kenyon, 1947 – 1995
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

and this:
Daily
Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips

These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares

These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
This rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl

This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out

This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of sky

This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it

The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world

{ Reply }

Elisa Winter December 7, 2018 at 6:01 am

Love these poems. Thank you!

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Vicki December 6, 2018 at 8:07 am

I work in a production environment and often really enjoy perfecting the efficiencies of the repetitive tasks. Yesterday I was at a machine that wouldn’t cooperate and feeling anxious and angry as I got farther and farther behing the production line. This is not my normal it just happened to be a difficult day all around.
Today I will go in, take a few deep breaths and find the zen in the machine again. Even if it is still being cranky I will enjoy the mastery it takes to keep it running the best I can.

Thanks for reminding me.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:47 am

I’m glad you mentioned this. That’s another dimension of enjoyment, which we can get in ANY task: the pleasure of getting better at it.

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Bernz JP December 6, 2018 at 8:22 am

I love this. “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives”. Enjoying our lives every one day at a time. This is probably the missing link to my happiness as I do feel like I am living for my future.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:49 am

I can’t take credit for that one. Apparently that’s an Annie Dillard line.

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Dean Wilson December 6, 2018 at 9:06 am

Thanks for your efforts and courage. Your offerings all always mindful and appreciated. The suggestion that we take pleasure in all aspects of our life is really quite simple, for me at least, very difficult to accept. My preoccupation with the next great thing would never allow me to just be, to find my spirit in all aspects of my experience. Too soon old, too late present.

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David Cain December 6, 2018 at 9:50 am

I think you’ll find it’s easier than you expect!

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Jack December 6, 2018 at 11:40 am

Growing up, my mother would always tell me to clean my room and make my bed when she would notice that I was troubled about something. I would of course repulse and say “why?” to which she would respond, “it will make you feel better”. She was right of course. It has become a life long habit for me to organize my brain and therefore my approach to life by paying attention to seemingly, menial tasks around the house when I’m feeling out of sorts. It never hasn’t helped me to feel better. :)

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David Cain December 7, 2018 at 10:56 am

I am just learning that “feel better” effect now, as it pertains to cleaning and tidying. Like clockwork, I feel better when I clean something up, and the effect is immediate.

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Brady Faught December 6, 2018 at 2:46 pm

I have so many friends and family members that live for their 3 weeks vacation. Get through 49 weeks of work they don’t like, in anticipation of their all-inclusive in Puerto Vallarta.

But then they come home and say the food was bad and the flight was delayed.
Such a terrible way to live – but it’s the way we’re conditioned – advertising never shows a happy couple folding laundry together.

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David Cain December 7, 2018 at 10:57 am

Alain de Botton has written about this effect — you look forward to going on vacation all year and then once you’re there, you discover you’ve brought your disappointment with you :)

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Shahin December 6, 2018 at 6:13 pm

I really liked this article! I already discovered some time back that I find chores like ironing and folding/putting away clothes very relaxing.
While reading the article, I realized that we can also apply this principle to working out. I hate the idea of having to get workout clothes and drive to the gym. But once I’m in the middle of the workout, it gets more enjoyable. I think most people think about the drudgery of starting the process. But once they start, the journey becomes more enjoyable.

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David Cain December 7, 2018 at 10:59 am

It works very well with working out — there are lifts I don’t particularly like but feel like I should do, so now I try to enjoy all of them. For the ones that aren’t my favorite I derive pleasure from trying to get better at them with each rep. There’s always some little aspect I can improve, and it makes it more interesting.

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Ravi December 6, 2018 at 8:20 pm

Thanks for your great article, which, I am sure, would change most of the lives whosoever reads this, at least to some extent.

You are doing a great job to humanity. Keep it up.

I am a guy from India, where scrubbing by a man’s work (will change in future) … but somehow I enjoy scrubbing, along with other household works.

Now that I have understood that all the works can be enjoyed if we

Once again, Thanks… this would really help me…

{ Reply }

Ravi December 6, 2018 at 8:39 pm

Read as
“”I am a guy from India, where scrubbing is NOT a man’s work (will change in future) …””

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David Cain December 7, 2018 at 11:00 am

Thanks Ravi. There is something really satisfying about scrubbing something clean. You can feel the dirt give way.

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Elisa Winter December 7, 2018 at 5:55 am

Got out of a long-term bad situation a year ago. Learning to live alone… the smallest things come alive because they are ALL MINE. This wonderful little apartment has everything a grown up woman could want. And every chore in it seems a pleasure because they’re MINE to do as I please. As the months have gone by and I feel the reawakening ebbing and flowing, sometimes a feeling of complete contentment comes over me, and “all is right with the world” feeling. So, dear David, I can certainly vouch for your ideas here. Given the context from whence I came, I am the happiest I have been in a very long time. Taking out MY garbage is something, if not pleasurable, than at the very least, yet one more reminder of my freedom and peace. Everything here sparkles, though I’m the only one who sees it.

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David Cain December 7, 2018 at 11:07 am

I remember noticing as a kid that when something was wrong or difficult, I craved “normalness” so much and vowed never to take it for granted when things got back to normal. As a very simple example, when had a scary dream and couldn’t sleep, I craved being at school the next day, in a well-lit classroom, (something I normally thought of as boring). But the contrast shows how peaceful and relatively easy a normal schoolday was compared to really painful experience. I always hoped I would remember to enjoy that ease and safety when daytime came and I was back in school.

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Rama December 7, 2018 at 7:40 am

Loved this post, David!

I realized that there’s one thing that’s common to all Raptitude posts that I really enjoy and re-read: your beautiful everyday examples!

From this post:
– warmth of dishwater,
– the fresh air on a walk to the store,
– and the relaxing sensation of sitting in a chair, even if that chair is in the waiting room at the oil change place,
– the click of a latch closing,
– the feel of laundered cotton,
– the evening din of a grocery store,
– the tiny punch of a thumbtack through notepaper

These examples make the insight come alive. You have a genius for spotting them. Thank you!

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David Cain December 7, 2018 at 11:08 am

Examples are what make it relatable, IMO, and the best examples invoke some kind of concrete, sensory feeling

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Andy December 7, 2018 at 7:32 pm

In my 20s I wondered why everyone hates the DMV so much. And airports/air travel, and long drives. But now, in my 30s I realize I wasn’t just getting lucky by having a streak of pleasant experiences in those places. I simply experience them differently. I expect I could have interpreted plenty of minutes in waiting rooms and long lines as frustrating. But I don’t. I feel like that’s a win.

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sooperedd December 9, 2018 at 2:21 pm

I too detested the DMV…but now it is a wonderful opportunity to read.

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Annie December 7, 2018 at 8:04 pm

For me it helps to be grateful for why I have to do these tasks. I am grateful to have dishes to wash because that means I had food to eat. I am grateful to do laundry because I have clothes on my back. I am grateful for dusting, vacuuming, and even cleaning around the toilet, (the task I like least as it’s physically hard for me to kneel down to get it properly clean), because I have a roof over my head. I am grateful to do the chores of life because I am happy to be alive.

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Katie December 7, 2018 at 10:52 pm

One simple pleasure I revel in is pulling sheets or towels warm from the dryer. Always makes me breathe in their smell and smile.

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Elizabeth Larson December 9, 2018 at 11:21 am

Awe some! Add me to the list of folks who needed to be reminded of this and are grateful you did!

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Chris December 9, 2018 at 4:04 pm

Great article. You would enjoy reading Phillippe delerm

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Peri Babendir December 11, 2018 at 11:01 am

Really enjoyed this–it’s all about finding the small moments of “mundane gratitude” and appreciating the things we commonly take for granted. Thank you for sharing this piece. Guess it’s time for me to fold the laundry :)

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m2bees December 13, 2018 at 12:40 pm

Yes, to find joy where I am. what a goal!
Your post reminds me of this:

NORMAL DAY…
( Author: Mary Jean Iron)

Normal day, let me be aware
of the treasure that you are.
let me learn from you, love you,
bless you before we depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest
of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
let me hold you while I may,
for it may not be always so. One day
I shall dig my nails into the earth,
or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut,
or raise my hands
to the sky and want, more
than all the world, your return.

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