I got the blues thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.

—D. H. Lawrence

Last June my partner and I made pin cherry jelly. We picked the sweet, glossy fruit from the majestic old tree in our yard, sampling as we went, then boiled it, skimmed it, pressed out the juice, thickened it, and poured the ruby liquid into jars. It made us both ridiculously happy, and that’s before we even got to the jelly-eating part.

D. H. Lawrence is onto something important here, and it’s not about jelly. He’s describing the joy to be found when we leave off thinking of the future and do something something practical, tangible, and above all, physical. 

There is something about chores that reliably improves a sensitive person’s outlook on life. I give thanks to D. H., for articulating so vividly a truth I had experienced many times but had never named. He’s performed a service for sensitive people, because “the blues”—feeling anxious or low—are close companions for many of us, and anything that can lift a low mood for us is a gift.

Why exactly do we HSP’s feel better after taking care of household tasks? Here are three reasons that resonate with me. You may have additional ones:

1. Interacting with the “sense world” is a powerful antidote to being in your head

“I’m sick of being in my own head!” is a near-universal HSP complaint. We are deep thinkers, and we can easily fall into the well of our own brains and get stuck down there. When we languish in the hypothetical future or the regretted past, we get the blues.

When you interact with the physical world, you reground yourself.  Washing dishes brings you back into your body, back to the practical, immediate reality of “now.”  Your hands are warmed by the water, the soap bubbles reflect iridescent light, the silverware gently clinks. You are reminded that happiness can only be experienced now…in the present moment.

2. Chores give your HSP brain needed “down time”

I’ve written about our need for ample sleep, but this kind of down time is different. I call it waking rest. Your brain needs waking rest because you take in so many stimuli from your environment and process them all deeply.

The problem is, it can’t do that when you are actively applying it to a problem, a conversation, a movie, or Facebook. Imagine the employees of Macy’s just after closing time on Black Friday. They need time to re-shelve the returns, neaten the displays, restock, sweep, and balance the registers before they can field the next wave of customers.

Every day is a Black Friday of stimulation for your HSP brain, and it needs to be awake but “closed for business”—that is, left to its own devices—to recover. Without this waking rest you will get tired, cranky, and low. Chores are a perfect form of waking rest as they occupy your hands and enough of your attention to keep your mind from concentrating hard on anything else.

3. Chores meet the HSP standard of “elegance”

As HSP’s, we need more sleep, more waking rest, and more processing time than most people. Our free time is already at a premium. With only so much time in each day, I employ the concept of “elegance” as much as I can.

Mathematicians bestow their most complimentary adjective, “elegant,” on a solution or theory that is pleasingly ingenious and effective, yet simple. I do the same: I rank the elegance of an activity by the number of my needs it meets. Witness the high “elegance factor” of a seemingly mundane task like making soup:

  • My brain gets waking rest
  • I move my body, which shifts my mood: if I felt anxious, I now feel better
  • I feel satisfied when I take care of a task I’d have had to do anyway (wash the dishes, vacuum my office, take out the trash, clean the bathroom, make soup, shovel snow, sew a button back on)…and I get to enjoy the results
  • I create more order in my environment, which reduces my tendency overarousal
  • I give my partner a break (he finds it discouraging to arrive home to a sink full of dishes)

Who knew these mundane activities could lift your mood, give you a much-needed “brain break,” AND efficiently use your precious time to meet multiple needs? This is the upside of the environmental susceptibility we HSP’s share: we are highly responsive to our environment. We can really appreciate the elegant fruits (pun intended) of our mundane labors.

In fact, I think I will raise a toast to  D. H. Lawrence right now… a piece of buttered toast with pin cherry jelly.

Last week we looked at ways to rescue your day if you wake up anxious. Next week I’ll share ways you can avoid waking up anxious in the first place.  In the meantime, if you feel anxious or blue, take care of something around the house and see if it helps lift your mood.