In the movie the Break Up, an annoyed Jennifer Aniston comes home and is frustrated at the sight of dirty dishes piling up in the sink, but even more annoyed at the sight of her boyfriend (played by Vince Vaughn) laying on the couch playing video games. Unable to take it any longer, she finally lashes out at him in anger. He gets up and says, “Fine, I’ll do the damn dishes!”
But his tone is defiant… and that’s not the reaction she was looking for. They get into a heated argument and Jennifer finally expresses a classic line that sums up the root of the problem: “I want you to want to do the dishes.”
There are probably a lot of dynamics at play here that I won’t even attempt to get into. But I do think it’s interesting that doing the dishes appears time and time again in our lives — from our defiance of childhood chores, to the added tension of a shared kitchen with roommates in college, and then to arguing about it with our spouses. It takes the same form: a merciless punisher, a seemingly benign activity, a judgement of our character, a constant tester of patience, and yet a necessary, inevitable hardship of life. Even into adulthood the cycle repeats itself, the perpetrated turns into the perpetrator (“you do the dishes!”), but we can never seem to escape from the vicious cycle. Soap, water, circular motions of the squishy, yellow sponge.
Yes, dishes suck. So what’s the bright side of it all?
A couple of concepts I’d like to introduce that can help us enjoy washing dishes a bit more.
- Aiming for the Mundane
In Viktor Frankl’s moving book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he talks about his several year experience as a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. He noticed that when his surrounding comrades no longer could find solstice in the small things — the joy of an extra piece of bread, the comforting melody of song, or a daydream about one day reuniting with their spouses — then there was little hope they would survive; having already forfeited bodily comfort, letting go of spiritual and mental purpose was their inevitable spiral into death.
He concluded that the only thing that we control in our lives is our reaction to things. And that ultimately, the pulse of life depends on finding meaning in the mundane (he went on to start a branch of psychology called logotherapy based on this notion). Imagine how pleasant our life would be if we could find meaning in everyday mundane activities like doing the dishes.
The science of building work ethic is well-documented. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth explains the formula for success that she’s seen across professions. While we gawk at the naturally-talented piano player or entrepreneur, she found that in reality perseverance and long term effort are determining factors that bring amazing results. One way to become more ‘gritty,’ is to, well, do difficult things. Who is more likely to run a marathon?
A) Someone who has written no books or
B) Someone who has written 5 books.
Without knowing much, you’d likely pick B, even though he or she could have no limbs. But the logic is pretty straightforward: if we spend time doings tasks that are difficult and require perseverance — like dishwashing — we’ll get better at doing other difficult tasks.
Tying it aback to dishwashing, the two takeaways here:
Finding meaning even in the most mundane of tasks is a basic psychological driver for us to find joy in life.
The better we get at doing difficult things, the better we can do other difficult things. That’s ‘work ethic.’
Next time you feel irritated by dishwashing, you can see it as a Stoic exercise to build a little bit more work ethic and building a new avenue of joy in your life, knowing that in the process you’re doing something nice for someone (yourself, your roommate, your spouse, or your family).
Or, you could just get a dishwasher.
*Full disclaimer: I’m by no means an expert at dish-washing, as I often forget to the dishes and have to be reminded, as my girlfriend can attest.