Want to Be Happier? Try Making Your Life a Little Harder
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Want to Be Happier? Try Making Your Life a Little Harder

We're not kidding. Use a push mower. Bake your own bread. Knit a new scarf. Do things by hand and your brain will thank you.

I read the Little House on the Prairie books aloud to my small daughter and am filled with envy. Okay, so obviously it would have been a total bummer, having to scrub my menstrual flannels in a bucket and stew up endless turnips and chase off the locusts. My hair would surely have been greasy, my petticoats grubby and encumbering, my cuticles raggedier than my children's rag dolls. And yet: The Ingallses are so connected to their own lives. Their every happiness -- their very existence, really -- is created from the work of their own hands. Pa fiddles by the firelight while the girls knit themselves stockings and Ma sews pantaloons; the kids skip school because it's time to boil maple syrup or harvest rutabagas or cut ice from the lake.

My longing is no mere fantasy. I'm actually happiest when accomplishing tangibly productive work -- shoveling snow, replacing a shirt button, harvesting tomatoes or dicing them for salsa -- rather than crossing virtual tasks off my on-screen to-do list.

This does not surprise Kelly Lambert, PhD, who is, like me, a mother of two and a wannabe Ma Ingalls. Unlike me, she is also a neuroscientist, the chair of the psychology department at Randolph-Macon College. Lately she has been researching the phenomenon she calls "effort-driven rewards": When you do meaningful work with your hands, a kind of neurochemical feedback floods your brain with dopamine and serotonin. These happy brain chemicals are natural antidepressants, and we've evolved to release them both to reward ourselves for working with our hands and to motivate ourselves to do it some more.

It's a survival thing -- or was, originally, back in caveman days. The kind of work that dispenses the happy drugs is anything with a "survival-based outcome." That includes procuring food and shelter (think dicing onions or remodeling the bathroom) as well as grooming and clothing ourselves (French-braiding your daughter's hair, sewing a dress). "Our brains are programmed to derive a deep sense of satisfaction and pleasure when our physical effort produces something tangible, visible and -- this fact is extremely important -- meaningful in gaining the resources necessary for survival," Dr. Lambert points out.

Americans have become more depressed in recent years, and at the same time we've experienced a decrease in purposeful physical activity. Dr. Lambert feels there's a connection. Did we lose something vital to our mental health when we started pushing buttons instead of plowing fields?

Harvard neurologist Marie Pasinski, MD, author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You, thinks so. Dr. Pasinski says she gets that happy look-what-I-did! feeling when she prepares a meal at the end of a day filled with the more intangible tasks of managing her medical practice. "We are programmed to reward ourselves when we accomplish things with our hands," she explains. Psychologist Susan Pollak, EdD, also at Harvard, agrees: "I think for so many people, it just feels as though everything's going so fast -- life, kids, hundreds of emails a day -- and there's so little we do now that you can really see and hold on to. Working with one's hands is a way to slow down, to savor, to take pleasure in life again."

This doesn't mean that you can knit your way out of a depression -- or that you should unplug your dishwasher or quit your American Idol habit. But Dr. Lambert does think of effort-driven rewards as something like "mental vitamins" that can help us achieve and maintain a sense of well-being. So when you hem a skirt or turn a heap of vegetables into a pot of soup or kneel in front of your fireplace to build a fire, it's not simply thriftiness, nostalgia, or DIY pride that's making you so happy. It's your brain rewarding you for a job well done. Try it and see for yourself what a little elbow grease can do.

You'll decrease your stress levels.

Seek out activities that cultivate mindfulness: the sense of oneness with your activity, whether it's crocheting baby booties or weeding your garden. This kind of repetitive work actually helps you in two ways, Dr. Lambert says. "Something like counting stitches, we call that a 'cognitive distracter,' which means that when you're doing it, you're distracted from stress. Meanwhile, when there's a clear connection between your physical efforts and results, you get a sense of accomplishment. You're increasing your 'reward' chemicals and decreasing the chemicals related to stress or anxiety -- that's a pretty nice cocktail." Indeed. A 1995 study by clinical psychologist Robert H. Reiner, PhD, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who sew experience a significant drop in heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration. Leisure turns out to be complicated and important. "Any type of repetitive motor activity can calm the brain," Dr. Pasinski says.

You'll feel a greater sense of control.

We are more and more like the Jetsons, pushing buttons and popping pills instead of cooking and eating, simultaneously sedentary and frantic. Yet all these technological advances are not necessarily advancing the quality of our lives. "What are we doing with our hands these days?" Pollak asks. "We're texting. Hands-on work takes us away from technology and back to our roots: tradition, memory, a simpler life, quiet." Consider taking a break -- from your cell phone and your computer, sure, but also from appliances. By the time you've finished wrangling your leaf blower out of its nonfunctioning funk (frustrating), you might have raked the front lawn by hand (rewarding). Patch the hole in your jeans instead of driving to the mall for new ones; make party invitations by hand and mail them instead of sending evites.

You'll save money and feel better.

It's not just about the extra nickels you bank from baking your own bread. Studies have found that spending does not lead to happiness. In The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, author Gregg Easterbrook even links consumerism with depression. (I'm no researcher, but I know how it feels to leave a big-box store with a bagful of crap I don't need: bad.) Meanwhile, hand-based work has been shown to increase your happiness, even though it costs little or nothing and can even save you money. For me, doing things myself, the hard way, is like money in the bank, at least emotionally speaking. "Did we need to replace these socks?" I ask my husband, needle in hand as I show him my latest darning effort. "Did we?" And he laughs, "No, ma'am, we did not."

You'll benefit even if you start small.

You don't have to fall off the grid and start raising chickens. As an example of small-scale happiness, consider my garden: It consists of a single herb-filled pot outside my back door -- basil and parsley, chives and cilantro. But when I duck outside to pluck a few fragrant leaves, when I taste them in a salad or salsa made with my own hands, I am flooded with pleasure. Likewise, let's look at the tomato sauce that I make and freeze in August (I'm too afraid to actually can it): Come February, I thaw it, pour it over pasta to feed my family, and experience deep satisfaction.

I'll never be Ma Ingalls -- I couldn't turn a goose into a duvet even if we were freezing to death. But this week, a hard time of deadlines and various household viruses, I feel a little bit like her. My daughter needs a fairy costume, so she and I sit together and cut up colorful old T-shirts. I bend wire into wings and sew layers of cotton into the petals of a skirt. Of course it's not bear hunting or wood chopping -- last time I checked, the survival of our species didn't depend on the costuming of children -- and I couldn't tell you if it's brain chemicals, lowered heart rate, or unplugged connection. I just know that when this smiling fairy twirls around, admires herself in the mirror, and holds my tired, capable hands in hers, I am so, so happy.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.