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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Make Things With Your Hands

Decrease stress, relieve anxiety, and find your flow.

April 17, 2016

Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.




When was the last time that you made something with your hands, like a cake, a painting or a scarf? Do you remember how it felt to create something, finish it, look at it and enjoy it? Even if your creation was far from perfect, it likely felt very, very good.


Everyone I know who spends a good amount of time time creating with their hands – be it cooking, growing vegetables, building, knitting or any sort of working with raw materials really – describes making as “therapy” and as essential to their well-being. Research also shows that making things with your hands is great for decreasing stress, relieving anxiety and improving mental health.


In addition, research confirms that making things with your hands is a large part of finding your flow, and flow is highly correlated with happiness. Unfortunately, our modern world makes it very hard to find that rhythm where we can, free of distraction, just focus on the task at hand – where we can just turn off our minds (and phones) and be present in the moment.


For those of us in academia it’s a double challenge: it’s not just that as a society we spend more and more time invested in online experiences, but also that we as scholars don’t get to see the tangible results of our work.


Of course we write papers and we occasionally even publish them in very fancy journals, but they never really feel finished in the same way a herb garden or strawberry pie does – there’s always something missing, something you didn’t quite finish, something you could have done better. That little confidence-booster you get from seeing how “crafty” you are isn’t really part of the deal.


For us, more perhaps than for other types of workers, the physicality of DIY projects and the clear specificity of what they require of us, can be rejuvenating, essential even.


So how does one become a maker? A little hint: it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process, a slow one and very personal too.


If you’re into the idea but feeling overwhelmed, here’s a little advice to get you going:


Don’t confuse handicraft with chores.


Making, as wide a spectrum as it can encompass, isn’t about routine chores or tasks. It’s about the love of the craft – the pure joy of creating something from zero.


There’s a difference between rushing home after a day in the lab to throw together a quick dinner before you faint, and savoring the experience of baking the best banana pie you can possibly bring into existence. The same goes for making your own home repairs to save money versus making your own home décor crafts to add personal accents to your place.


And, obviously, if you hate cooking, then chopping veggies is unlikely to send you into flow!


Pick something relevant.


If you just pick an activity because it sounds cool in theory, you likely won’t be able to stick with it very long. Instead, take a look at your life and think about parts you’d like to improve. Are there things you enjoy but can’t afford readymade? Are there products you’re using that aren’t quite meeting your needs? Things you’d like to improve?


For instance, I met someone at a party recently who started brewing their own beer because they were after a flavor they couldn’t find in stores. Similarly, I have a friend who uses her handmade jewelry as a personal trademark and sells them for some extra cash. Another friend, to whom living an environmentally friendly life is very important, makes her own natural cleaning products.


Personally, I’m always looking for excuses to spend more time in the kitchen, though I tend to focus on things I can’t afford or can’t tolerate readymade. For example, I love soaking in my bathtub and bath bombs are one of my favorite things to use when I’m overwhelmed or stressed. However, good, natural bath bombs can be very expensive and, unless I make my own, I can’t enjoy them regularly. I’m also a big fan of pickled anything, but have trouble tolerating the spices most pickled veggies come with, so making them from scratch is my only option. I also like pickled snacks that are hard to find in stores in the first place, such as pickled papaya and pickled strawberries (yuuumm).


Keep it simple.


Making your own furniture sure sounds fulfilling and all, but it’s also massively time consuming and difficult to try out without making a huge investment in tools (unless you’re lucky to live near a makerspace with woodwork equipment, of course). Likewise, winemaking from grapes is something you probably can’t pull off if you live in the city but alternative wines, like elderflower or walnut, are easy to make without any fancy equipment and they add a nice touch to social gatherings.


Generally speaking, baking, brewing, gardening, DIY body-care, home crafts and accessories are a good (i.e. realistic) starting point for most of us. So start small, and once you get the hang of it, slowly start making bigger and more elaborate things.


For instance, I got started by brewing my plain kombucha, then I added a second fermentation where I started infusing the brew with herbs and fruits, and then I slowly moved on to other fermented drinks and vegetables. I also didn’t just throw out all my commercial body care products, but took one step at a time, starting with tooth paste, then trying deodorant, then bath bombs etc.


The most important thing is to just get started: Try it once, take it slow and don’t be intimidated! I think there’s a part of us that is wired to make, so once you get your feet wet, you'll find it easy, natural even, to wade further in.


Personally, the more I make the more I crave making, and it’s become such a big part of my work-life balance. It provides a major relief from the immateriality of knowledge work, and it fulfills my need to create and share things that I have put my love and time in.



Further resources:


25 Essentials That Are Better And Cheaper To Make At Home

The Lost Art of Scratch Cooking

101 DIY Projects How To Make Your Home Better Place For Living

39 Coolest Kids Toys You Can Make Yourself

40+ Epic DIY Gadgets To Build For Geeks

17 incredible DIY gadget projects

Pinterest (my favorite)


What do you make with your hands? Let us know in the comments below!


[Image from Flickr user Jim Linwood and used under Creative Commons license]


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