If waiting for an important telephone call, or stuck in writer’s block with a looming deadline, we’ll inevitably rearrange our record collection or clear up the papers dotted around your office – and it’s sometimes the most relaxed you’ll feel all day.
We’re not alone in this. As we faced pandemic stresses, many people reported finding renewed interest in looking after their homes as a way of coping with the uncertainty. On YouTube, there’s a huge audience for videos of people going about their chores, with millions of views for some of them. Psychologists suggest there are many mechanisms that might explain the perfect pleasure of puttering – and they may well encourage you to engage in it more often.
At the most superficial level, puttering may be useful because it occupies the mind, so that we devote fewer resources to the things that are worrying us. Even if we struggle with structured forms of meditation, for instance, we may find household tasks can anchor us in the here and now. But that will depend on where we place our focus.
In one of the few studies to examine the mental health benefits of washing the dishes, researchers divided 51 participants into two groups. Half read a text that encouraged them to focus their thoughts to the sensations evoked by the activity. “While washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes,” they were told. The rest read factual instructions on how to do washing up without explicitly encouraging them to focus their awareness on the sensations it produces.
Afterwards, the participants were asked to take a questionnaire about their feelings. Those who had fully engaged with the sensory experience reported a significantly better mood. This included reduced nervousness and even a sense of “inspiration”, as if the immersion in the simple activity had refreshed their minds.
Unlike other distracting activities – such as playing computer games or watching trashy TV – puttering also has the advantage of being proactive and useful, increasing our “perceived control”.
When we feel anxious, a sense of helplessness can heighten the physiological stress response, increasing levels of cortisol. Over the long term, the sense of helplessness can even harm the function of the immune system. Ideally, we would deal directly with the upsetting situation itself. But research suggests we can gain a perception of control from activities that may have little effect on the situation that’s bothering us.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to align with actual control, as long as we believe, or feel, we have control,” says Stacey Bedwell, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. Simply being able to change our environment can create a feeling of agency that is beneficial, she says – which may explain why cleaning and organizing our homes can feel so therapeutic.The benefits do not end there. If your puttering takes the form of organizing and decluttering, you may find that the tidier environment is itself a form of solace.
As the University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross writes in his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Heads and How to Harness It: “We’re embedded in our physical spaces, and different features of these spaces activate psychological forces inside us, which affect how we think and feel.” If we see order outside, it helps us to feel a bit less chaotic inside, he writes. “[It] is comforting because it makes life easier to navigate and more predictable.”
Brain imaging studies support this view. In general, you see much greater brain activity as you increase the number of distracting objects within a scene – with each object vying for our attention. This may lead your brain to tire so that it struggles to maintain its focus over long periods of concentration.
Importantly, you don’t necessarily have to remove the clutter to prevent this from occurring – simply rearranging it will do. Organizing objects into groups – by color, for example – may provide the brain with more obvious cues for navigating the chaos. This reduces some of that neural confusion – and may improve our focus as a result. By reducing anxiety, soothing stress responses, increasing focus and triggering the release of endorphins, it’s little wonder so many of us take to household chores as soon as we are faced with uncertainty.
Like all activities, the extent of these benefits will be influenced by your personal tastes and the associations that you link with the tasks. If you are housework-averse, and will only pick up a duster under duress, the pleasures of puttering may be forever elusive. But for the homebodies among us, we can now understand why fruitful fidgeting can be such a salve for the restless mind.
“the imagination needs moodling– long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering.”
what’s your go-to puttering activity?
BBC, David Robson, science writer, Ethan Cross, author