The Health Benefits of Working with Your Hands

By Gaynor Strachan Chun
By Gaynor Strachan Chun

If you’ve seen the cult classic Office Space, you’ll recall that the film’s lead character, Peter Gibbons, loathes his paper-pushing job. With a bleak future filled with endless “TPS” reports, an overbearing boss, and depressing cubicle walls, Peter dreams of having his neighbor’s job, which is completely void of any paper pushing.  After much hilarity and drama (spoiler alert!), the film ends with Peter outdoors on a construction site working with his hands, looking much happier and fulfilled than before.

So what is it about working with our hands that brings us human beings so much purpose and joy? Is it the tactile sensation? The physicality of manipulating materials? The reward of seeing a solid, tangible result upon the completion of our work?

According to the job-hunting site Monster, our brain chemistry actually changes when we work with our hands: “By the simple act of using our hands, be it rewiring a home’s electricity, laying bricks, or simply sweeping, we can forge entire new neuro-pathways in our brains that could not be made in a less physically active environment.”

Sign painter Bob Dewhurst

In fact, working with our hands can be a great stress-reliever. People dealing with issues such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks or post-traumatic stress are encouraged to focus on working with their hands. Clinical neuropsychologist Catherine Carey Levisay says, “There’s promising evidence coming out to support what a lot of crafters have known anecdotally for quite some time, that creating — whether it be through art, music, cooking, quilting, sewing, drawing, photography (or) cake decorating — is beneficial to us in a number of important ways.”

Of course, ask any craftsman or craftswoman, and he or she will tell you firsthand (no pun intended) the benefits of working with their hands — that it is an extremely positive experience. Many have said that something almost spiritual happens, like a state of flow or Zen, when you immerse yourself in this type of work.

Take, for instance, the story of Matthew B. Crawford. Having reached the pinnacle of his education (earning a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago), Crawford had some difficulty finding a job right away. In his downtime, he tore down and rebuilt an old motorcycle by hand in his basement. He began to spend more and more time in his basement and even enlisted the help of a local mechanic to teach him a thing or two. Crawford ended up accepting a job at a prestigious think tank in Washington — and lasted five months. After saving up enough money to buy the necessary tools, he quit his job, opened up his own motorcycle repair shop, and is now the author of several books including Shop Class As Soulcraft and The Case for Working with Your Hands. In the latter, Crawford writes, “Manual competence makes you feel better, and behave better.”

Master woodworker Gary Rogowski, another favorite author (of the recently published Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction) and featured in our Craftsmanship Quarterly Winter issue, extols the benefits of working with our hands in this way: “It is my belief that working with our hands is valuable. Connecting with tools to create things offers us a compensation that no electronic calculus can bring. The cacophony that is the Internet keeps us distracted, impatient, anonymous, and searching, but rarely satisfied. [Seeing the results of our labor] may only be an attempt to create something that feels solid in a world of impermanence, but this kind of progress means something to me in a day. Perhaps to you as well.”

If you have a job that does not involve working with your hands in the way described in this blog, we’re not suggesting that you up and quit. Nor are we pushing a total career change. However, we do encourage you to pick up a tool, perhaps take a class in pottery or woodworking, and see what it feels like to work with your hands. You may find focus, serenity, satisfaction, or even some happiness in doing so!

Read more about Gary’s journey in his Craftsmanship Quarterly article, A Woodworker’s Tale, and let us know what benefits you’ve experienced through working with your hands on our Facebook Page, Twitter or Instagram feed.

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