Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Secret to Happiness

I'm marking rebuttal essays this weekend, which means that my students have mined the internet for ignorant, illogical, and ill-expressed opinions with which they disagree. In the last two days I have read editorials arguing that university students shouldn't have to take science courses (they're too hard), that fat children should be removed from their parents' custody, and that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry because marriage has historically been developed by and for fertile women, so that they can know who the father of their children is.

Amid this sludge, however, I've discovered one apparently reputable psychology researcher who has stumbled upon the secret to happiness: hard manual labour. Models of a happy life include nomads in hunter-gatherer societies and Caroline Ingalls. Their secret? Plenty of arduous, complex physical tasks done with their hands (the hands are important) and directly linked to survival. To get the biggest happiness-charge, we need not only physical exercise, but purposeful exercise that involves anticipation (of, say, a delicious meal), challenge, and tangible results.

Modern life affords almost no opportunities for this kind of activity. I would say, from personal experience, that walking a treadmill engages the pleasure-centers of the brain in almost no noticeable way. Athletic competition is more purposeful and, I've heard, is considered enjoyable by those with rudimentary eye-hand coordination. But scoring a goal against an opponent is a very different thing from cooperating with a neighbour to trap a wild boar that will feed the tribe for a week.

I am always skeptical of arguments based on a combination of biological determinism and a rosy idealization of the primitive past. Throw the word "wired" in there and you've pretty much lost me. I can imagine that hunting for survival might provide some mood-enhancing jolts of adrenaline, but I'm less convinced that scrubbing laundry by hand with lye soap would chemically rewire my brain for happiness. That said, there is a certain plausibility to the idea that hard physical labour can promote happiness so long as it is meaningful, productive, and complex. Laying bricks for $1/hour doesn't qualify - but apple-picking might.

It's the difference between packing and unpacking. Packing up the house for the move last August was tedious beyond belief, but it was relieved by joyous bouts of unpacking. Whenever I move I'm the same way: I've learned to invest in good shoes because I'm on my feet constantly, sleeping in brief five-hour spurts before whirling into action again. Within twenty-four hours I am in the nailing-pictures-on-the-wall stage, simultaneously restless and deeply content. There is something satisfying in working hard and seeing the results of your work take physical form.

I can imagine that the cooks and the crafters feel this way too - and the gardeners. But I will never be one of them. For better or worse, I am the girl who shops at the craft bazaar, not the craft-supply store. I watch the Food Network and read home renovation magazines, but at the end of the day I'd much rather write a blog post about the pleasures of manual labour than actually engage in any.

29 comments:

Mary-LUE said...

Amen to that... the bit about participating in manual labor.

the dragonfly said...

I like to create things. At the moment I'm working on two rather large cross stitch projects. In about a week I'm going to start making my Christmas cards. And while I always say I'm "too busy" to do things like this...I always feel better when I do.

cinnamon gurl said...

Heh, that's so true. It's why I'm really glad I live within a 20-minute walk of work (and Swee'pea's daycare) now, because THAT I really enjoy.

We still have a LOT of pictures to hang.

wordmama said...

I'd give that student an A grade, because I agree completely. I think it's why I find the job of motherhood so satisfying. Keeping my child fed, clean, happy, learning continuously and feeling secure is a job that always makes me feel content at the end of the day.
I do feel that I'm hard-wired to be a mum because it's the one thing I can count on to make me feel content (or at least like a muddling novice who is learning as she goes).

Christine said...

i have done both--hard manual labor and athletic competition. for me, it was not about idealizing the past, but purely about 1) the real endorphin boost and serotonin increase and 2) about the feeling of accomplishment that you can literally feel down to your bones. i realize it sounds cliche, but the gentle (or not so gentle) ache in your muscles after a hard day of field work or a race is a physical reminder of what was accomplished.

that is not to say that non-physical accomplishments don't leave one with the a sense of pride or happiness. i'm just saying that it is a different, unique sort of feeling.

for me, archaeology was the perfect mix of physical labor mixed with intellectual pursuits. while i will never go back to archaeology for a variety of reasons (think torn rotator cuff and malignant melanoma and low pay), i often miss the feel of a shovel in my callused hands...

AnneK said...

"...but at the end of the day I'd much rather write a blog post about the pleasures of manual labour than actually engage in any."

A big fat yes to that. I tried brief stints of gardening, fancy cooking, and crafting. None of them worked for me.

Beck said...

Whenever I'm miserable, I always start doing some hard work that I've been putting off, my theory being that I'm miserable ALREADY. But my husband is a big believer in the Character Building Through Hard Labour school of parenting, which means that any given weekend, he's got The Boy lugging bricks around the yard. That kid will have Character when my husband is through with him. And callouses.

Mad said...

I am drawn to manual labour. I love making pies from scratch, knitting sweaters, what have you. The only time I actively avoid manual labour is when I am being paid to do it. Can anyone explain my avoidance of paid labour? I'd love it especially if it could be explained using "arguments based on a combination of biological determinism and a rosy idealization of the primitive past."

That, btw, was one of your best lines ever.

Veronica said...

When I am very angry at my husband, I clean. It makes me feel more peaceful. When I am anxious, I bake. It helps me feel more peaceful. So for me, at least, I think the theory holds true.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Yesterday while my husband was driving us home from Portland (a 3hr drive), I was intensely aware of being happy. And all I was doing was sitting in a car.

I imagine there are many ways a person can be happy. I do believe that purposeful manual labor is one way, but it's not the only one.

Patois said...

Having just spent 20 minutes cleaning up all the dog poop in our back 40, let me say that my only happiness results from the smell of soap on my hands right now.

No Mother Earth said...

I used to feel that way when I did distance running. There's something about knowing that even if your day totally sucked, at least you got some good exercise in, and nobody can take that away from you.

I loath doing major housecleaning, but am ridiculously proud when I finally do.

Cyndi said...

I would agree with this. I know I always feel satisfied at the end of the day knowing I worked really hard at something. I think of it as the good kind of tired. But scrubbing laundry by hand? That would be pointless and would just make me frustrated!

Bea said...

Mad - It makes sense that paid labour would not engage the pleasures centers of the brain in the same way: your labour contributes to your survival needs only indirectly - you'll earn a paycheque and use it to buy stuff you need, but the direct results of your labour (the thing you make, or the cleanliness you create) benefits your employer. If I'm baking a pie for myself and my family (hah! but let's just say) then that act of labour involves anticipation (of the delicious pie) and connects the most basic survival instinct: the need to eat. If I'm baking that pie because someone hired me to do it, all that's in it for me is the $3/pie I'm going to get paid, which is, really, not a whole lot of money.

Nomo - I actually really enjoy housecleaning, though moreso now that I have a house that's actually clean when I'm done, rather than one full of hopelessly stained carpets and grimy tub and sinks.

Jamie said...

Interesting theory -- I'm sure my own experiences lend it some credibility from time to time. For example, when my sweet tooth kicks into high gear and I am motivated to roll up my sleeves and bake a batch of cookies (manual labor that my survival is dependent upon), I do feel happy.

Until I think about the calories.

Kyla said...

Oh yes. Me, too.

But I'm so intrigued by the Amish, about their peaceful, hardworking, seemingly happy lives.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Interesting thoughts. I am one of those people who is rather lacking in hand-eye coordination, but I am kept sane by hiking and gardening. I love using my body, planning within less-than-overwhelming constraints, and seeing the fruits of my labor unfold. I love noticing the change of seasons, the different plants, the light. I do hate running -partly because of asthma, but also because I want to see all the details. Why would I want to run right past them?

Mimi said...

Such a literary critic you are, Bea -- that last line killed me. I would also rather think about the argument for things that owuld make me happy than d the things that would make me happy.

Mary G said...

Does it count if you're happy because you finally got it done and you can sit down?
I guess not.
I'm married to a manual labour maniac.
I hide a lot.
But I can relate to nomo's comment about the exercise. And I suspect that's the key. The *I have done that* feeling, emphasis on the I.

Andrea said...

I don't know if the article your student found mentioned this, but the fact is that depression rates have skyrocketed this century and no one knows why. The generations that had no labour-saving appliances and that lived through two major wars and the Depression had rates of mental illness a fraction of what we have today--and that's not just measured retrospectively. This doesn't fit within what I'd call a rosy idealization of the past.

Furthermore, societies today where physical labour is the norm continue to have very low rates of depression.

Physical labour is only one possible explanation; but no matter what the explanation is, the fact remains that our grandparents were, on the whole, much happier than we are, even though they had so much less to be happy about.

Bea said...

Mary - The article didn't say this, but I wonder if we misinterpret the cause of our good mood when we accomplish a physical task. We think we feel good because we've checked it off our list and it's finally done, but actually we feel good because the labour itself has stimulated our brains to feel pleasure.

Andrea - That was exactly the point made by the article - but in ways the student found problematic. The author had conducted a study on rats showing that physical labour can increase persistence, with the not-so-subtle implication being that depressed people lack persistence - and if they would just try harder they could stop being depressed. The shift from manual labour to a thinking economy is only one of many changes from the pre-Depression era until now, and it seems to me that what is needed is a good comparative study of those whose lives require a great deal of physical labour today and those whose lives do not. (I suspect voluntary labour wouldn't count because depression makes one much less likely to engage in mood-boosting activities.) (I am, perhaps, less than usually receptive to this argument right now because I'm reading the new biography of L.M Montgomery with its horrific portrait of depression in both LMM and her husband, despite the wealth of manual labour LMM performed in her home.)

beth said...

I would agree that this is probably true, and I would also agree that this kind of work is hard to come by in today's society.

I do get some satisfaction from a long action packed day with the kids or the preparation of a good meal, things that involve actually doing something of value, but the hard manual labor aspect is just not there. Definitely something to think about.

kittenpie said...

You never know - maybe a little woolly mammoth hunting is what we've been missing...

Still, I will agree that my preferred cleaning tasks are the bathroom and kitchen, because you can really see results for your effort, at least.

Anonymous said...

People may ask me, for example, "Do you bake bread/make paella/ bake a pie, etc.?" to which my reply is usually, "No, but I have seen it done many times on Food TV".

(Your) Anon

painted maypole said...

i think meaningful work (paid or otherwise) that you enjoy is really the key - seeing the connection of what we are doing to our own life as well as the lives of those around us.

Bon said...

i realized only in the past few years that i don't know much about hard manual labour at all...mowing the lawn with the push mower is about as hardcore as i go, and i'm happy to let someone else do it. but then, i don't care much about the lawn, particularly in relation to survival.

i will say i find the physical tedium of childcare more rewarding and less horrid than i ever imagined, so maybe that - and childbirth itself - are My hard labour.

Lady M said...

Most of my life is so abstract that I was thrilled with the results when I started sewing costumes for our dance troupe. A few hours, and there - something I made that I can hold in my own hands. This, instead of hours and days and weeks of negotiations at work, where a success is getting several parties to agree to do something. Not to actually do it, just agree to do it.

Gwen said...

I can't keep up with all you smartypants, but I do know that the manual labor involved in baking a perfect pie or delicious cake gives me way more joy than eating it or sharing it with others. When stressed, I bake. Perhaps this is tragically dorky, but there you have it. It works for me.

Catherine said...

I'm pretty much the closest thing to a book worm and the farthest thing from a "good with my hands" person you've ever met.

But.

I did live in rural India for a few months. And the thing that I found there that was life changing was that working hard, with your hands, at tasks that led towards survival, brought a joy that I was not aware existed. And that joy was tangible, and shared by everyone in the community. And appears to be (in my experience) totally lacking in our society.

This is something I've been mulling over ever since. Like you said, I don't want to oversate the romance of a primitive life - there's nothing joyful about giving birth to 14 childred, only to loose 11 of them.

But yet....