Chop wood, carry water and whistle

Women’s magazines all seem to have their own set of topics that they keep recycling. A feature on how to lose those last stubborn 10 pounds, paired, oddly enough, with recipes for the world’s most decadent brownies, is bound to be on the pages along with an article about putting more zip into your marriage and zipping into the perfect pair of jeans for your body type.

Once in a while, though, there comes along an article like the one I saved from last summer’s Ladies Home Journal, the one that advertised on its cover “cutest clothes to take on vacation” and “the reinvention of Valerie Bertinelli.” I’m forever clipping articles and sticking them in folders that sometimes get unearthed, sometimes just when I need to read them.

This particular article was about finding happiness by making your life a little harder. The author pointed to her fascination with the Laura Ingalls Wilder series of books that described the difficult life the pioneer family lived, whether it was Ma having to carry water from the river to boil over a fire so she could do the laundry, or Pa building a snug cabin with just a hatchet and a forest full of trees. But when the work was done the family happily sat around the fireplace singing songs.

Heck, even while they were working they were singing and whistling. When was the last time you felt like singing as you worked on the company spreadsheet? And even if you had, no doubt someone in the next cubical would have you up on some HR charge.

But that’s the point of this article, the work the Ingalls did — “tangibly productive work,” the neuroscientists call it — results in a neurochemical feedback that floods your brain with dopamine and seratonin, the stuff that brings a smile to your face and a spring in your step.

The author said our early ancestors needed this kind of feel-good reaction as motivation to keep on working. Mostly, scientists say, the reaction happens when the person is working on anything with a “survival-based outcome.”

Arguably, getting that company report done may affect your survival on the job, but it’s not going to give you the same rush as weeding the garden or fixing the downspouts, the experts say.

The article also pointed out that working with our hands gives us a “two-fer.”

Say you’re grouting the bathroom tiles. You get that dopamine rush from a tangible job well done, and while your mind is occupied with this seemingly mindless task, it doesn’t have the inclination to be stressed — unless of course you run out of grout and have to make a hurried trip to the Home Depot before they close.

Seriously, though, I think there’s actually something to what the researchers are saying, especially our dependence on technology. The article pointed out that what people mostly do with their hands these days is texting. Instead, we need to get back to our roots, our traditions and a simpler life.

I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the days of hauling water in order to have clean clothes, but I have to admit that when the summer sun is shining and I hang out the laundry instead of throwing it into the dryer, I have a small sense of satisfaction. The same goes for taking the time to bake a loaf of bread or preserve jars of tomatoes that line a shelf in the basement. I even catch myself singing along with the radio while I’m doing it.

— Nancy Luse writes from Frederick, Md.

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