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Make Stuff, Be Happy

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Could working with your hands help aid anxiety and even depression? ShortList’s Matt Hussey explores the rise of manual labour for the soul

The modern man is many things: film buff, food connoisseur, keeper of fine footwear, (still) the mayor of his favourite local on Foursquare for some reason. The one thing he is not, according to research, is good with his hands.

Thanks to leaps in technology, a man’s focus has shifted away from mastering raw materials and wearing stonewash dungarees, to perfecting his driving style on Grand Theft Auto and ordering a dinner jacket on his iPhone.

Sales at B&Q and Homebase were down about two per cent year-on-year in 2013.

“So what?” we hear you cry. “While our grandads can build a wall with a trowel and a piece of string, we can bring down entire governments with a tweet.” Well, a new body of evidence suggests our service-based economy, our land of convenience, hasn’t led to the Shangri-La of happiness we were initially promised.

According to an article in the British Journal Of Psychiatry, male depression is on the increase thanks to economic and social changes that have left our role in the workplace in jeopardy. Another study carried out by The Conference Board indicates fewer than half of workers are satisfied with their jobs, the lowest level since record-keeping began more than a quarter of a century ago.

In response, a new generation of men, often sporting full beards and flannel shirts, have rediscovered their inner woodsman. The Maker Faire, an annual show-and-tell of people’s handywork established in 2006, is now in 60 countries. Not only has it been labelled “the next industrial revolution” by the likes of Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, but working with our hands can also make us live longer, too.

Scientists at the Danish Cancer Society claim men who broke a sweat regularly doing DIY were 23 per cent less likely to die young than their more sedate counterparts. Has man’s march away from the factory and into the office been a double-edged sword? Or is this a passing trend, the urban hipster’s latest fad?

I decided to find out.

Wood Work

In my early twenties I revelled in the idea of working with computers. But more recently, I’d come to resent my iPhone and its bleeps and tweets demanding my attention every five minutes. I wanted something more than just the next level on Fruit Ninja.

So for 15 weeks I was going to learn to build my own furniture at London Metropolitan University’s Sir John Cass Faculty Of Art, Architecture And Design. At the very least, I’d come away with a semblance of a skill. At best, enlightenment, a new career, and a life wearing overalls, growing an impressive beard and smoking a pipe I’d carved with a knife.

Walking into the workshop on my first day, I was surprised by how old everything was. I was expecting band saws and other industrial gizmos to do my DIY bidding. “Oh, we don’t do that here. We’ll be doing everything the old-fashioned way,” said my teacher Helen Welch, grinning in front of a wardrobe full of chisels, mallets, set squares and planes. I’d be sharing my workstation with Trevor, a 64-year-old former school teacher. “What brings you here?” he asked, smiling. “Spiritual enlightenment,” I replied. He looked at me, blankly. “Oh right,” he said while examining his chisel set a little bit too intensely.

The group was a lot more mixed than I thought. There was Steve, a 27-year-old who wanted to get out of accounting and into set-making for theatres; Gavin, an architect in his forties who wanted to turn his habit of tinkering in the garden shed into something more tangible; and Paulo, who was setting up his own florist and wanted to know if he could do the renovation work himself.

While all their reasons were inherently practical, plenty also stressed that merely being out of the office brought a smile to their faces. “Anything beats working,” said Paul, a 36-year-old phone technician who dreamed of owning his own speaker business. While I may have been putting more weight on the philosophical elements of working with your hands, there’s an undeniable good feeling that comes from doing something that doesn’t involve the glow of a computer screen.

Blood, sweat and sawdust

For four weeks we’d learn how to cut grooves, joints and sharpen the tools required to make a cabinet with shelves and a hinge door. After that, we were on our own, with 11 weeks to put all we’d learned into one wooden box without ruining it. This felt like far too cavalier an attitude. Where was the goal setting and the performance-related reviews, I asked? “Carpentry is about learning to live with your mistakes. You learn by doing,” said Welch. I felt like I was speaking to a monk – who just happened to be wielding a Japanese saw over an unsuspecting piece of pine. Who knew gouging holes in wood could be so enlightening? But within minutes I’d learned that this was a temporary and fleeting bliss.

In my first attempt at cutting a groove to slide a shelf into, my enthusiastic hammering had split the board in two. Not only had I cut too deep, I was hammering too hard. “It’s not a piece of concrete. You just need to apply pressure correctly,” said Welch, patiently. By the end of the day I was exhausted, I’d cut my hand twice, and had covered my jeans in sawdust. But I felt strangely satisfied sitting on the train looking like I was an actual carpenter.

Matthew Crawford (above), a philosopher and former think tank employee who quit his job to start his own motorbike repair business and wrote a book about it, calls my experience “individual agency – the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own”. While that may sound like an overly flowery way of saying “cause and effect”, the immediate sense of working on something and seeing the results was empowering. Even if the initial results were terrible.

My course was every Friday, meaning the rest of my week was spent chained to my laptop. Whereas before I’d be content spending hours watching videos of artisans making awesome stuff, I spent less time ‘plugged in’ and more time reading books by guys called ‘Tord’ and ‘Sven’ about cabinet making. I drooled over chisel sets on eBay and even made a hit list of all the things I was going to build with my newfound skill. I was hooked.

The Joys of Labour

I went in search of others to share this epiphanic moment. What I found was men in their twenties and thirties who’d had perfectly conventional careers, but decided to turn their backs on the desk and forge their own path.

James Kennedy (above) launched Kennedy City Bicycles last summer after spending years as a trend forecaster in Shoreditch. “In my office jobs I could easily go a week and look back and realise I didn’t do anything of value. I might have made some value, but it wasn’t clear to me. Building bikes, however, you become absorbed in a flow of creating things that’s incredibly rewarding.”

Jonatan Staniec (below), founder of MES Leather, a small company that makes wallets by hand, goes even further. Years ago while working in a warehouse in his native Poland, he had a breakdown. Returning to his family home, he watched his father, a leather worker, do the same thing he had done for years, but this time, something stirred in Staniec. “I’d starting seeing all these guys like me making things on the internet, and I figured I could do the same.”

While he’d never go so far as to say he was saved by leather, watching him threading and gluing and finishing a wallet in his tiny studio looked deeply gratifying.

His experience is also supported by the work of Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist and chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, US. While examining MRI scans, she noticed that when we partook in physical labour it activated parts of the brain involved with not only reward, but also emotion, movement, and higher reasoning associated with anticipation, planning, and problem-solving.

While queuing for dinner in the supermarket and catching up with the news on your phone requires a lot of “brain real estate”, as Lambert calls it, there isn’t the same surge of endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters we get when busying ourselves with something more physically taxing.

Back at my course, however, my brain was spending more time finding expletives than it was making me feel good. I’d hit a wall. The first few weeks were just watching and then freely making mistakes on old bits of timber.

But now I was hacking into my own precious walnut, and things weren’t going to plan. The dovetails I’d measured and sawed to allow the four outer parts of my cabinet to sit neatly together weren’t doing what they were supposed to. Welch pointed out that one of the boardsappeared to have warped and twisted, meaning the interior measurements weren’t even and so the box was wonky. “You’ll have to start again and re-do that side.”

Shelf improvement

My shoulders sagged. My naive belief that I could master wood in six weeks was shattered. I cycled home, forlornly, but by the time I got there, I’d remembered another part of Lambert’s work. When rats were trained to claw through cage bedding to find food, they showed greater boldness and persistence – hallmarks of mental health – than other rats, which received food freely. Were my woodwork failings a necessary part of the process and my overall mental health?

“Oh definitely,” says Jo Davies, a ceramicist based in Stoke Newington. “Around 30 per cent of everything I make will get destroyed or broken in the firing process. Things not going to plan is just part of making things.”

I decided to stick with my wonky cabinet. I’d made good progress assembling the different parts, but before you glue the whole thing together, you have to finish each surface. “Just a bit of wax then?” I asked, curiously. No. You sand, re-sand, and sand some more before you can start to gently apply anywhere between 30 and 100 layers of sealant and varnish depending on how shiny you like your wood. This took weeks. But, seeing my face glisten in the surface of my wood – and the sweat patches under my armpits – gave me an enormous sense of achievement.

I never got to attach my door to my little cabinet, or add the last few finishing flourishes. But I felt attached to my little wonky box with a crooked shelf.

While I feel the carpentry industry isn’t quite ready for my prodigious talents, I did come away knowing that making things isn’t just about the end product: it’s all in the journey. The cock-ups, the twisted wood, the frustration, the cuts, the bruises to my ego, the problem solving and the painstaking attention to detail were far greater than the half-finished creation that currently sits in my kitchen. While my friends chuckle watching the spices in my cabinet slide to one side, I know something they don’t: building something, anything, can make you happy.

(Images: Adhytia Putra/Jamie Kneale/Penguin/Matt Hussey)

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