Cooking, Cleaning, and Sewing Are the New ‘Wellness’

1950s housewife chores have been rebranded as meditation and self-care

An illustration of three women characters cleaning, gardening, and doing other household chores.
Illustration: Virginia Gabrielli

FFresh Roberson, a Chicago chef, kept hearing the same thing from her club’s newest members: Dough was their savior.

Fresh co-directs the Chicago Bread Club, an organization that runs workshops on making sourdough, biscuits, and babka. While the club welcomes members of all ages, it was this new class of millennial attendees — many of them female college graduates — who echoed a very specific sentiment. Bread-making, the physical action of mixing ingredients and kneading dough, was a stress reliever.

“There’s something about following a procedure — putting things together, then watching it rise,” says Roberson, 37. “You get to be creative and work with your hands… It’s also really pretty.”

Baking bread is having a moment: Social media accounts such as Challah Hub highlight the joy of working with yeast, while 800,000 posts are dedicated to #homemadebread. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, bread-baking gatherings have gained momentum despite trendy gluten-free and no-carb diets. Sales of sourdough starter kits are seeing a resurgence.

“There’s a real satisfaction element,” says Chicago Bread Club founder and co-director Shulamis Rouzaud, 33, who notes another draw: an intrinsic desire to make something. And bread, for many, is a totally accessible DIY product. You just need flour, water, and the ability to follow directions.

It’s not a chore—it’s ‘self-care’

When referring to baking, Rouzaud avoids the ubiquitous term “wellness,” which conveys a pursuit of something that may or may not be achievable. Instead, she uses “well-being.” That, she explains, is a more holistic and individual-centered philosophy.

Baking is just one of many ways U.S. women now find refuge in activities once associated with domestic drudgery. It’s something they can proudly tackle and satisfyingly complete, in contrast to other modern-day pressures, be it work or parenting or, I don’t know, keeping their family healthy during a pandemic.

“Cooking shouldn’t be viewed as a chore or another to-do, but more as a way to be more present, spend more time with family and friends, and to be able to complete the task.”

Today, the $4.5 trillion wellness industry extends beyond simply unplugging or indulging at a spa; it speaks more to improving one’s health and self-worth in new, surprising ways. These labor-intensive trends represent a collective creativity, an empowered will to self-soothe in a world that makes it increasingly challenging to find inner peace.

A slew of new companies and groups are rebranding age-old chores as self-care: Cooking becomes an immersive escape from tech. Gardening products sell working with dirt as a personal time-out. Sewing is a form of meditation. “Cleanfluencers” reimagine the art of scrubbing kitchens. Meanwhile, companies like We Are Knitters, which sells yarn kits, have grown exponentially by glorifying the benefits of flexing your fingers.

What do these activities have in common? To start, they center around the home. Research has shown that millennials, in particular, feel a gravitational pull to stay in rather than go out. Surveys suggest they far prefer drinking or socializing at home, and one recent study found that Americans in their early twenties spend 70% more time at home than the general population. This shift has inspired startups like the newsletter Girls Night In, which has more than 170,000 subscribers.

Girls Night In founder Alisha Ramos says her readership is often too tired, overwhelmed, or cash-strapped to want a pricey night out on the town. (Many others are just simply introverted.) Home serves as a sanctuary from burnout, a safe space. “You feel secure in your home and that then lends itself to feeling more calm,” explains Ramos.

That said, baking and knitting are not just satisfying the urge to cozy up on the couch. They offer a specific physical release. Intentional repetitive actions can redirect one’s focus away from anxiety, worries, and depressive thoughts and lull individuals into a relaxing trance. Once people start cooking, for example, they often enter a near flow state. Chopping an onion or forming meatballs are repetitive rhythmic motions, which studies show can improve mental health. It’s mindfulness with dinner as a reward.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that repetitive acts increase a person’s belief that they can manage a situation that is otherwise out of their hands.

Dr. Darshan Mehta, medical director at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, explains that physical hobbies could be as potentially effective as medication in lowering blood pressure, provided they’re performed in a mindful manner. “It’s paying attention to the actual sensory experience and engagement with the activity,” he explains. “So if you notice that other thoughts are intruding, you return back to the exercise you’re doing.”

A popular clip from The Big Bang Theory further illustrates this practice: Raj (played by Kunal Nayyar) exalts washing dishes as a newfound form of meditation. “The key is that while washing dishes one should only be washing the dishes,” he instructs. “It’s about being present in the moment, focusing on the feeling of the water, the smell of the detergent, the sound of the dishes squeaking, and following your own breath. It’s about simply being.”

It’s that idea that motivated entrepreneur Nick Ling to found Pattern Brands, an entire portfolio of companies designed to help millennials enjoy their homes in a more mindful manner. Its first launch, Equal Parts, combines chic cookware with cooking coaches who help twenty- and thirtysomethings gain fulfillment in the kitchen. They help customers build a set of habits and find meaning in activities as routine as Tuesday night dinner.

“Cooking shouldn’t be viewed as a chore or another to-do,” Ling explains, “but more as a way to be more present, spend more time with family and friends, and to be able to complete the task. It’s this idea of finding enjoyment in your daily life — at home.”

Control and accomplishment

Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that repetitive actions have another added benefit: They can increase a person’s belief that they can manage a situation that is otherwise out of their hands. Ritualistic behavior offers a sense of control.

“Cleanfluencers” are capitalizing on this. Becky Rapinchuk, creator of the popular cleaning website Clean Mama, is one of dozens of social media influencers extolling the virtues of picking up a Lysol bottle. Her 455,000 followers learn how to properly wash floors, set up a housekeeping routine, or even just make their own natural cleaners. In a frank but friendly tone, she reminds, “If you don’t get off your phone, you’re not going to get that done. You need to stop watching Netflix and go unload your dishwasher.”

Household hobbies allow you to exert mindful effort. Consider them the antithesis to a society that has all its needs met without much exertion at all.

She says fans describe their homes as a barrier against the anxiety-inducing influences of the outside world. The never-ending news cycle, constant tech communication, even traffic and restaurant noise — everything feels chaotic, explains Rapinchuk, so it’s essential to come home to a haven that is quiet, organized, and spotless. It’s a type of purification, one of the oldest examples of self-control.

“Your home is something that you can control,” stresses Rapinchuk. “It’s going to take some work, but it’s a lot easier than solving the world’s problems.”

Although, a clean home gives you more than a sense of control. It gives you a feel-good sense of accomplishment. The “Ikea effect,” as it’s known, refers to taking far more joy in a handmade object than that which is store bought. You imbue it with more value.

As Rapinchuk says of her DIY cleaning liquid recipes, “There is satisfaction in knowing that you made it and it cost you pennies.” Not to mention that you were successful in cleaning up what was once a messy area. “When you see progress, it makes you more motivated.”

Gardening counts as self-care too. A new survey found that 70% of millennials have taken it upon themselves to become “plant parents,” in part due to the joy that comes from seeing botany thrive. Amanda Dunker is co-founder and CEO of Avalow, a gardening startup resonating with women in urban environments by way of self-watering flower beds. She says her clients love the physicality, as well as the self-esteem boost, in learning how to garden. She sees a group hungry for knowledge and eager to master a new skill.

“When they plant [a seed] and see it flourish, they get to take ownership of that accomplishment,” reflects Dunker. “It really relaxes people and empowers people.”

Productive mindfulness

Household hobbies allow you to exert mindful effort. Consider them the antithesis to a society that has all its needs met without much exertion at all. What joy is there in relying on DoorDash and Amazon Prime for everything?

“In this modern age, we have lost the ability to be bored and then be inspired and then create something new. I think [home hobbies] are incredibly therapeutic.”

In an era when many millennials feel they always need to hustle or transform every talent into a side business, these activities act as both a stress reliever and confidence booster. There’s no attached pressure. Making things also serves as a necessary creative expression, says Ramos. “In this modern age, we have lost the ability to be bored and then be inspired and then create something new. I think [home hobbies] are incredibly therapeutic.”

Wellness has long been used to address mental and physical needs, and now that potentially means donning dishwashing gloves to “meditate.” One could see such efforts as deceptive methods to get us excited about burdensome chores or, as some of these new founders attest, an opportunity to thrive.

“The most enjoyable activities are not natural and they can demand an effort,” says Ling, dispelling the idea that self-care should always come easy. “But the completion of those activities and learning the skill is fully, intrinsically rewarding.

Journalist :: health, wellness, tech / Well To Do wellness industry newsletter at welltodo.substack.com

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