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PBS's This Emotional Life: 5 Lessons I Learned From My Vacuum Cleaner

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Wisdom comes to us in many different ways. Sometimes a friend will ask you for advice and you find yourself saying what you yourself most need to hear. Other times you go to a faith community and feel the sermon is totally directed at you and your current dilemma. Bumper stickers can provide some of the most profound lessons. As a psychologist I am always on the lookout for metaphors and concrete examples of woo-woo psychobabble stuff.

My husband recently surprised me with a gift. When I first saw it I was kind of annoyed, "this is the surprise?" I can be very ungracious when receiving gifts from those closest to me. The idea that it is the thought that counts is what I strive for. It is what I teach my kids. I am still working on living it myself.

Back to the story. My husband bought an iRobot Roomba which is a round contraption that goes around your house and vacuums for you. I know that I am a bit behind on the technology front given that a few years ago Saturday Night Live did a brilliant parody about a Woomba that cleans "your business, your lady business." So often I get excited about something way after everyone else has discovered it. (Disclaimer: This is by no means an advertisement or review for this product.)

I have been mesmerized by this cleaning robot. It is supposed to be a time saver but at this point I can't seem to get anything done because watching it work is so fascinating and hypnotic. Where will it go next? Will it fall down the stairs? After watching it for way more time than I should have I realized there are great lessons to be learned from how this thing operates. All the mysteries of happiness may be unlocked by this simple device. Ok, probably not. But below are some of my observations that correlate with achieving greater mental health and happiness.

1. Not falling off the edge. The Roomba seems to be able to detect upcoming edges and manages to slow down its approach. It doesn't fall down the stairs. It seems to have a way of coming very close to the edge and recognizing when there is no more firm ground beneath it. It doesn't freak out or need to call other vacuum cleaners and whine. It just simply turns around and heads in a different direction. Slowing down when you notice yourself getting close to your emotional edge is a wonderful way to help prevent falling off of it. "Oops, I am getting really pissed off at this person and rather than lose it I am going to notice it and focus my thoughts, actions, feelings elsewhere."

2. The job gets done, eventually. The Roomba doesn't seem to follow a predictable pattern but yet, eventually, the whole room seems to get done. Watching it work for a few minutes would make you doubtful that it could accomplish such a task. It doesn't seem to rush if the room is bigger or slow down when it is smaller. It just goes around in its merry little way and gets the job done. It is persistent. I guess Aesop was right, slow and steady wins the race. Being goal-directed can be a very good thing. But sometimes, we are too rigid about how we think things should be done. We judge others for not doing it like we do and judge ourselves for not doing it like they do.

3. Overcoming obstacles. When running into an obstacle the Roomba readily course-corrects. It doesn't seem to stop and ponder why this happened. It doesn't necessarily struggle to push past the challenge. No. It just tries to find a way to get out of the situation. The cool thing is that when it finds itself trapped it does call out for help and then shut down to preserve its energy. What's the point of flailing about and wasting energy? Of course in our life it can be useful to understand how we got into a mess in order to avoid getting into it again. Sometimes, however, wasting time trying to recreate the situation in your mind will leave you too exhausted to actually solve the problem.

4. Knowing your needs and asking for help. The Roomba knows when it needs to be cleaned out and tells you exactly what it needs. It wasn't working the other day and it told me that it needed to have its brushes cleaned out. Once we cleaned the brushes it began working again. It is so much easier to get what you need from others when you actually know what you want and then ask for it. How ingenious!

5. Recharge. The most brilliant thing about this piece of technology is this: It monitors it's battery charge and identifies when it needs to recharge, then finds its docking station, and then starts the process of renewal. Wow, knowing when your emotional battery is getting low, knowing where you can get reenergized and then actually doing it ... amazing stuff! Sometimes the biggest challenge to mental health is acknowledging that your battery is running out. People often see this need as weakness. Stop judging yourself for being human and note that even a robot needs a vacation!

Pay attention. Who knows which appliance may be your next teacher!

For more information on emotional health and well-being, visit www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.

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