Manual Work And Mental Wellbeing

In the Rule of Saint Benedict, a book of precepts written almost 1,500 years ago, an entire chapter is devoted to emphasising the importance of daily manual labour. Idleness is the enemy of the soul, said Saint Benedict, and a monk’s day should be divided between devout reading and working with one’s hands. Benedictine monks therefore built entire cathedrals, abbeys and churches across Europe; they toiled and cultivated soil across the continent’s wide agricultural regions. They would be put to work at least five hours a day: because work, according to Saint Benedict, is close to prayer in importance. He saw immense value in the link between hands and brain, manual labour with mental wellbeing. To him it was simply a form of godly meditation. So it was to Pai­-chang, a Zen Buddhist monk who lived two centuries after Saint Benedict. “A day of no work is a day of no eating,” he wrote. Meaningful activity is restorative, nutritious and above all essential. It offers a sense of accomplishment and contribution. And with that, inevitably, comes contentment.

These values remain, although times have changed. It’s a fact that mental health problems are far more common in the unemployed or those out of work. Those who retire later in life often live longer than those who stop work early. Keeping the clock wound up is an essential part to making it ticking longer. Manual labour and psychological wellbeing are inextricably linked.

First the industrial revolution and then the digital: slowly humankind, by and large, has reduced his contributions to the world down to what is emitted through a digital display screen. And that is arguably why a new generation is rediscovering the essence of contentment by doing something with their hands. Pottery, woodworking, knitting: these have all seen huge surges in popularity in recent years and the question is why?

It is a matter of time, first of all. A pot cannot be completed instantly, it must be made and then fired; glazed and then fired again. Patience is absolutely necessary. To create anything out of wood, first you must come to understand timber’s grain and then slowly whittle with it. Skill, too: even the most basic of crafts take practice, and it is this sense of practice that creates satisfaction. It is the rewarding act of slowly improving before finally conquering.

Five years ago, philosopher­-turned­-mechanic Matthew Crawford wrote “The Case For Working With Your Hands: Or Why Office Work Is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good”. Crawford’s first job was writing abbreviated précis of lengthy academic texts: a couple of dozen a day. The work was certainly intellectual, but he also found tremendously dissatisfying. It was when he pursued his interest in automotives and became a mechanic that he felt a sensation of satisfaction he had not in years. His new work was utterly tangible and quantifiable: before the motorcycle was broken, now it was fixed.

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on,” he writes.

Learning a trade and becoming a craftsman are perhaps not options to all of us. But this sense of accomplishment can hugely impact on our mental wellbeing in many other ways. Doing any day-­to­-day physical activity or chore in a mindful way can contribute to joy.

That could be tidying: rather than dashing around throwing things in a wardrobe, an hour could be spent methodically folding and organising clothes. Marie Kondo’s enlightening book, “The Life-­Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising”, celebrates the happifying qualities of taking tidying seriously. It could also be talking a wander to nowhere in particular – which is very different from walking. Moving and looking and thinking about nothing except the climate or the trees or buildings around us. It could be paying special attention when cleaning the house: meditatively polishing instead of madly, mindlessly scrubbing. It could be chopping vegetables mechanically and precisely. Time should be taken and every act vaguely thought through. These acts – done slowly, peacefully – relieve nervousness and stress. Simply by thinking about small mechanisms, even for just ten minutes, we really think about nothing. And then at the end something tangible – a meal, a tidy living room, the dishes – has been achieved. And achievement, fundamentally, is what makes us content.

Our world is very different to Saint Benedict’s or Pai­-chang’s. Distractions lie everywhere, we are all busy all the time. But the edifying qualities of working with our hands on our wellbeing remains more important than ever. Making or doing something is far more profound than the physical – it has the power to mentally improve us too.

St Benedict, RP 2008, The Rule of Benedict (Link to Amazon)

Matthew Crawford, 2010, The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Link to Amazon)

Marie Kondo, 2014, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising (Link to Amazon)