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Friday Takeaway: Naomi Shulman

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home. —SARAH CROSBY



For the Bulletin
Sunday, September 10, 2017

Did you hear about Frances Gabe, a woman who died recently at the ripe age of 101 — and whose claim to fame was the world’s first (and, so far, only) self-cleaning house? A video of her demonstrating the house to journalists made the rounds on social media a few weeks ago, and I was fascinated. She lived in what was essentially a huge dishwasher — to “clean” a room, she’d leave it, seal the doors shut, and turn on the water jets. Half an hour later, the room would be sparkling, if damp. Doesn’t sound like a house I’d like to live in, but she didn’t design it for me; this house was her home, a labor of love. Gabe was an odd duck; interviewers had a blast with her irreverent, plain-talking style. I have no desire for hot water to blast out of my woodwork. But dang, Gabe was onto something. 

A study was just released that makes such intuitive sense to me, it almost seems funny that it even had to be conducted. Faced with the option of spending time doing a chore you don’t enjoy or spending money to hire someone else to do it, the people who spend the money — and thus buy themselves time to do something they do enjoy — are happier.

Well, yeah, that may seem obvious enough. People with enough money to outsource chores are going to be happier, right? But the researchers noted that this held true in all income brackets. It’s not about having a ton of money. It’s about how you spend the money you do have — and whether you’re using it to acquire more stuff, or more time. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you the time to find your happiness. 

Frances Gabe hated housework. She outsourced it so she woudn’t have to do it again, buying herself time to do what she actually wanted to do. Her method of outsourcing was to invent a wet-and-wild whole-house cleaning system, but there are other ways to  buy time, even for those among us who don’t have much in the way of discretionary income: Simply turn your attention to the things you’d rather spend your time on. 

I know this works because I grew up with my mother, who grew up with my grandmother — two women who hated housework and whose solution to that problem was to ignore it. When I was a kid, my house was filled with clutter and dirty dishes, but my mother was too busy playing piano to be bothered. My grandmother’s house was worse — she had a small subsistence farm, and goats were known to take residence in the house — but Granny was out in the garden, or knitting, or reading. If we wanted a clear space on the couch to sit, we could clear one ourselves.

If either my mother or my grandmother had had any money, I can guess how they would have spent it: on interesting outings, concerts and shows, travel. Mostly, they didn’t have money to spend, so they couldn’t play out the researchers’ findings. But they had time to spend. They had it because they created it. 

Both my grandmother and my mother are gone. Both died relatively quickly, with just a short decline — time enough to say goodbye, but not much more. I know neither of them felt any regrets about having missed out on the chores they hated doing. I’m not suggesting we should all live in squalid conditions; what worked for them doesn't work for me. Still, I did get the larger message: Time is so short. Shorter than we think. Spending it wisely is going to look different depending on who we are and what we love to do —  and don’t love to do. But the basic formula is the same: Figure out what makes you happy.  

The lesson I learned from Gabe: Spend more of your time doing those happy-making things, and outsource the other stuff. The lesson I learned from my mother and grandmother: If you can’t pay to outsource the other stuff, consider what you can let be. 

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine; as well as on NEPR and WBUR. You can follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.