Purposeful hand use enhances well-being in a technologically saturated culture.
Research has shown that creating or tending things by hand enhances our mental health and makes us happy. Dr. Kelly Lambert (bertlab.com) explored the relationship between hand use, current cultural habits, and mood. She found that hands-on work satisfies our primal need to make things and could also be an antidote for our cultural malaise. Too much time on technological devices and the fact that we buy almost all of what we need rather than having to make it has deprived us of processes that provide pleasure, meaning and pride. Making things promotes psychological well-being. Process is important for happiness because when we make, repair or create things we feel vital and effective. It’s about losing ourselves to the moment, allowing the rest of the world to continue without us having to notice and just making things.
When I was a young man, my father often pointed out that I did not study for my subjects at school nor did I make things (I wasn’t good with my hands). Ergo, I was set for a life of non-achievement, dreaming and possible drug use. I hate to admit that his jibes would come at least 75% true. He never, ever watched me play sport so had not a clue about how good at that I possibly was. In truth, I was and always have been, up until the night of the burnout, a dreamer. Now, I only dream about tooth extraction. I also dream that I will one day be good with my hands.
Research has shown that hand activity from knitting to woodworking to growing vegetables or chopping them are useful for decreasing stress, relieving anxiety, and modifying depression. There is value in the routine action, the mind rest, and the purposeful creative, domestic or practical endeavor. Functioning hands also foster a flow in the mind that leads to spontaneous joyful, creative thought. Peak moments occur as one putters, ponders and daydreams. One can be tickled, moved or transformed by a thought or idea along the way as well as by the endpoint.
My Little Big-Man phase of being a landscape gardener exposed me to the joys of building or creating things of feverish beauty or of beautiful functionality. Perhaps, I tended towards the functional with my love of creating lawns from the madness of an overgrown garden or simply creating fences whose geometry was simply gorgeous. My landscaping years were my forty-night escape into the ethereal wilderness of the immediate present (I was living for the moment). Indeed, that present sometimes presented me with a feeling of absolute euphoria!
Creating something with your hands fosters pride and satisfaction, but also provides psychological benefits. Because it can uncover and channel inner stirrings, wounds smart less and growth ensues. When you make something you feel productive, but the engagement and exploration involved in the doing can move your mind and elevate your mood. As you sift, shape, move and address your project your inner being moves too. As one of my clients said, “It isn’t so much what you can do, but what you do do.” The process itself provides value.
Creativity is a powerful tool for altering the inner life because making things or transforming inner states into outer productions fosters solace and satisfaction, even if the stimulus arose from an injury. Wordsworth described poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” Take it out of your mind, through your hand and into the world. Fragmentation and tumult turn into focused drive. Order arises out of disorder. And because it is your own order–organic and not imposed–it provides a special peace or feeling of resolution. As another client said to me after she finished typing a novella that stemmed from a troubling event, “I got rid of the story.” This is a form of sublimation or turning the raw into the refined. You may or may not be conscious of what perturbs you, but creative action with your hands, mind and body can turn undermining forces into usable energies.
Psychology Today My own writing provides me with the opportunity to create and to grow something. This book/blog started off as a way of capturing the time immediately after my moment. It ran on and on with me eventually seeing it begin to turn into something of value. The book/blog has helped me through a very dark time and I turn to it for solace and solutions. Unfortunately, solutions never write themselves, only the individual can do that. But it still doesn’t get me away from the need to build. That’s why I found myself heading across England and into North Wales. For me, the chance to work with my hands was a chance to free myself of the creeping self-doubt that was beginning to cloud my days. It also provided the possibility of me learning ‘valuable skills’ that could be employed to make money without having to turn to an ordinary employer. My friend had told me that he had a job laying a floor. I thought to myself, as I often do as my skills of thinking to anyone else (telekinesis) are rather shockingly bad, that this would be easy and enjoyable. Blessed are the tremendously naive for they will be rewarded with a great bloody shock.
Imagine this as a work place in which workers mix concrete, carry bags of sand and cement and spend hours on end bent double. Oh, and let’s not forget that I would endure the constant banging of my head on the ridiculously low ceiling and beams. Dust, damp and dangerous levels of damaging material floating in the dead air, were just a few delicacies of my dreamy return to the land of the men who are good with their hands.But it felt strangely liberating.
Many thanks to:
Carrie Barron, M.D., on the clinical faculty of Columbia University, is co-author of The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands, which she wrote with her husband, Alton Barron.