The Benefits of Working with Your Hands—And Why We All Should

April 4, 2022

In a time of lives lived online, preoccupied with our screens, we are caring again for things made by hand. Even as many of us work in digital and virtual environments, the demand for authentic, locally-sourced products is on the rise, and a new generation of artisans are devoted to traditional crafts—like woodworking, weaving, knitting, and ceramics. In doing so, these makers are finding not only personal fulfillment, but they’re building meaningful lives and rewarding careers.

Mindfulness = Happiness

Many of us are feeling occupational burnout, whether toiling away in professional isolation or working long hours on tasks separated from a sense of a greater purpose. Adding to this is the stress of information overload in our digitized society: the buzzing and beeps from technology, our negative, 24/7 new cycle, and social disconnect in spite of “networking” apps. It’s no wonder some people have found solace in slowing down, reevaluating their fast-paced lives, and seeking to create something positive of their own.

Researchers suggest that working with our hands can alter our brain chemistry. Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, coined the term “‘behaviorceuticals” to describe the greater signs of mental health she witnessed when engaging test subjects in hand-brain activities that produce visible rewards. The act of knitting takes time, patience, and attention to detail, which increases certain neurochemicals. The hats, scarves, or sweaters that are produced are the reward. They’re beautiful and serve a purpose, but the act of creating them releases serotonin, the “happiness hormone.” Knitting was studied here, but the same thoughtful practice may be found in almost any hands-on activity, from cooking to woodworking, gardening to glassblowing.

Handcrafts like these are said to improve mindfulness, a practice which dates back thousands of years. Today it’s been rediscovered as an antidote to present-day dysphoria, from its use in cognitive therapy and proven record of reducing anxiety, managing stress, and enhancing both sleep and concentration.

Healthy, Wealthy, and Hands-On

The benefits of working with your hands go beyond inner peace. In a job market that typically underpays those fresh out of college, younger generations are weighing the benefits of going to trade schools over four-year programs, which could potentially leave them with crushing student debt. Since 1990, tuition costs at colleges have risen over 300%, far outpacing the growth of the economy. Today, the average student debt for a Bachelor’s degree is more than $37,000, leading many to ask, “what are the alternatives?”

An education in the trades is showing itself to be a viable alternative to a four-year degree. Because there’s a shortage of skilled labor in the U.S., job growth and pay are both projected to rise in the next decade. The U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68 percent more job openings in trade-related jobs in the next five years than there are people trained to fill them. As older generations of craftspeople retire, this presents a unique gap in the workforce for young people to fill. This prospect of skilled careers, at a time when four year college debt is crushing, is worth considering. Pathways to meaningful lives do not have to come at an extreme cost.

Cure What Ails You

Americans report being increasingly unhappy in their white-collar jobs, owing to both boredom and a lack of engagement. Interestingly, this sense of dissatisfaction is highest among those with college degrees.

In his groundbreaking book Shop Class As Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford explains how we as a society have come to devalue what he refers to as “manual competence,” or the ability to understand, build, and repair the physical world around us. He argues office work can feel so mind-numbing at times because it fails to engage our basic wiring as humans, the desire to create. For Crawford, manual tasks can serve as an antidote to modern-day ennui, fostering creativity and problem-solving while also providing a richer sense of self and personal agency.

Working with one’s hands promotes mindfulness, offers job security, and provides a sense of personal accomplishment. This year, resolve to be healthier, happier, and handier: any number of fulfilling ways to work with your hands are literally right at your fingertips.