This week I discovered a new book called Craftfulness: Mend Yourself By Making Things. Craftfulness, it seems, is the next ‘big thing’ to help boost our mental health.
Naturally, I wanted to know more. Craftfulness, according to its practitioners, combines positive psychology and neuroscience with mankind’s inherent desire to ‘create’ in a technique that relaxes and heals the mind.
The key is to focus actively on a task that often involves an element of repetition — such as sewing, knitting, model-making, painting etc. Another new book in this fast-expanding genre is Knit And Nibble — combining knitting and baking to aid well-being.
This approach is in direct contrast to mindfulness, the fashionable psychological fad of the past decade, which revolves around ‘living in the moment’, and is both passive and introspective.
As someone who’s taught mindfulness to patients, I rather think craftfulness might have the edge.
Some years ago, while I was working with patients with severe, complex mental health problems, a new member of staff started a mindfulness course. I’d never heard of it and was astounded at the difference it made. People who’d been overwhelmed by their emotional stress, unable to manage even the most basic functions of life, were transformed after being coached in the practice.
For a time, I was convinced that mindfulness was the answer to all problems. But then the course ended and that same colleague started a new project — forming a gardening group. The impact on patients was no less dramatic.
It was then I realised that the therapeutic effect had more to do with my colleague and his way of talking and interacting with patients than it did with the technique he used. However, I also saw that gardening as therapy had a significant advantage over mindfulness. It was social, it got patients outdoors, and it was rewarding for them to see the effects of their labour.
Most of our patients carried on gardening even when my colleague moved on. This was in marked contrast to mindfulness, which nearly all our patients stopped doing once the course ended.
Now, I suspect that was because it’s a solitary activity, and also because it’s actually quite hard to ‘empty’ your mind and concentrate on nothing very much except your breathing. Nor is there much sense of accomplishment when it’s over.
That’s not to say mindfulness doesn’t have a place, but I know that it’s not the panacea I once believed it to be. When minds are racing and hearts are beating rapidly as anxiety strikes, it can be too much of a challenge for someone to focus on their breathing and ignore unhelpful thoughts.
The ‘distraction’ that craftfulness offers is precisely what many people struggling with mental health issues need. If you doubt me, just watch a child as he or she makes something, draws or colours in. Their absorption is total. It can be the same for adults, too — if we just immerse ourselves in an activity.
I’d go further and argue that it also fulfils a deep-seated human need to create. I know from my study of anthropology that the creation of artefacts is key to the evolution of culture and a way in which we show ourselves to be in control of our environment.
Of course, none of this is really new. I think of my gran, who would sit on the sofa every evening, her needles clicking away as she knitted another sweater or scarf, while my grandfather lost himself in his hobby, making wooden ornaments.
The older generation knew what we are only now rediscovering.
What a shame schools no longer teach needlework or woodwork, and that design and technology classes more often involve computer programs than youngsters working with their hands. Our minds are never freer than when they’re concentrating on doing.