March 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Making Makes Us Happy and More Creative

LTCMaker_Spring2016_Headshot90px_CarrieandAltonBarronDuring week four of our Maker Workshop, we learned how “using our hands feels good and is good for us,” from Alton and Carrie Barron, both MDs and co-authors of The Creativity Cure:  How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands (S. & S., 2012). The husband and wife team—a hand surgeon and psychiatrist, respectively—presented current psychological research that no doubt got everyone tinkering.

They started off by pointing out the results of a poll showing the majority of respondents tinker all the time, which is “fantastic,” said Alton. “Making is, in fact, medicine; it’s great medicine, and we want to convince you of that a little more,” Carrie added.

The duo proceeded to do just that, using a series of inspirational quotes and complementary artwork.

Be creative, be well

“[Psychoanalyst Donald] Winnicott was a strong believer in creativity as form of wellness,” noted Carrie. It’s not just about play and fun, but also the freedom of the mind. Making really facilitates a mindset that is very useful for innovation. “The play part and the serious part, when brought together, leads to happiness,” said Carrie. Preparing and building and using your hands is improvisation and problem solving, failure, resurrection, design. All are various aspects of the process. “Making leads to greater creativity in the mind,” noted Alton.

But what is creativity?

Next, the pair examined various definitions of “creativity” throughout the years, including:

Keeping a diary
Finding a solution to a problem
Bringing something new into being

They allowed that the deepest, truest self to emerges to make a positive contribution in creativity.” It’s really about a receptive mindset. It’s a position within the self, that natural organic part of yourself,” summed up Carrie. “Freedom and receptivity will naturally follow. There is no doubt that creativity benefits mood, mind, and body.”

Thinkers tinker!

The pair then posed an interesting question: What is the common denominator between most great scientists? The answer ties into the premise of this presentation.They all had workshops when they were children. The majority continued to have them all their lives, perhaps not as a formal part of their professional research, but on the side, at least.

Research shows that meaningful hand use elevates mood (besides conditioning the upper limbs). Perhaps unsurprisingly, reflexively typing on a keyboard all day does not count as meaningful hand use.

Kelly Lambert, Ph.D., president of the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society, says that type of hand use—building, making, cooking, gardening, knitting—elevates mood, according to Carrie. How? It stimulates the somatosensory cortex, the largest part of our brain, of which fully 60 percent is mapped for our hands. Practicing basic tactile skills leads to mastering them, which leads to innovation. Relaxed activity gives rise to spontaneous ideas in any arena or area of endeavor, the pair noted.

Making is individual

Next, the couple delved into an important concept. When devising a maker program for your patron, or deciding on such a pursuit for yourself, the first step is to define yourself or your patron. Who is that person? What would be beneficial? Painting? Pottery? Quilting?  You have to know who the person is before you can help guide them.

The actual activity can really be anything, even those one may not automatically consider “making,” such as organizing a garage, playing with children, strumming a guitar—or nail art, hair styling, or makeup artistry. People should never feel judged by their choice. Even tending to another person or animal is a “dignified convening with self” and that leads to a greater chance of wellness.

Why is making so important?

Making in all its forms fills a need in what the duo calls our “throwaway culture.”  Maker spaces are so essential, they added, because we live in a cerebral world with information overload. There is too much breadth and too little depth, they believe. “We’ve lost our sense of our bodies, as we stoop over our devices,” said Carrie. “We need to be using the body to learn and experience. We’re human; we’re animals. We’re flitting about hither and yon, but we need depth. Being really connected to project or a person gives us that depth.”

Depth leads to good things. It can take form of deep human connection, such as a leisurely conversation with a grandparent or friend. “It gives hope and the ability to cope,” said Alton. “Passion, purpose, pleasure. Your maker spaces can be the catalyst for all this. We all need it, and someone has to provide it!”

Don’t sit….set!

Next the couple enjoined the audience to consider a quote from John Steinbeck’s John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men:

“Come on in and set a while.”

Carrie loves the use of the word set instead of sit, since set evokes staying and connecting. Alton recollected how the couple’s eldest daughter expressed this idea particularly eloquently when she said “We’ve forgotten how to be slow folk.”

What Carrie has seen in her work as a therapist is that setting a while, making, and just seeing what happens gives rise to the deeper self as well as the unconscious. “Something very beautiful goes on in the mind and with a project. There is a passiveness in the sense that you allow your mind to go places.”

Alton agreed. “It instills patience, something I’m told I need more of,” he said with a laugh.

What is happiness?

The next famous quote brought forth for consideration was by writer Willa Cather:

“That is happiness: to be absorbed in something complete and great.”

The couple saw that a connection between that quote and the fact that ancient Greek philosopher Epictectus is attributed with putting forth the notion that happiness is a verb.

“It’s not thinking about it; it’s doing it!” said Alton. Here the idea of refraining from judging a maker’s choices was brought back in. “Let them go without judgement. It’s just about them staying in motion,” Carrie added.

Another favorite quote relevant to the idea of happiness was introduced, this one by Mahatma Gandi:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

The pair pointed out that, indeed, making is an opportunity to connect your outer world to your inner world. Then Alton remembered that “There was a saying by Robert Frost that I heard 30 years ago when my wife and I first met. ‘Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.’”

Expecting every moment of life to be happy is neither realistic nor advisable. “Happiness can never be permanent state, and we wouldn’t want it to be,” noted Carrie.

“Remember soma in Brave New World? We know how that worked out!” laughed Alton.

As they wrapped up this topic, Carrie and Alton noted that self knowledge is a huge part of happiness. Insight into your personal needs and finding a way to meet those needs is key. Yet don’t forget that having insight can be non-verbal experience. Remembering that can be helpful when leading a maker group. Don’t assume that because a participant is silent, she isn’t enjoying herself or deriving any benefit from the activity. “Your students and patrons can meet an elevated state without every articulating it. This is good to be aware of,” said Carrie.

Things happen for a reason

If we look back at our cultural development, we can see a logic in the patterns. The arts and crafts movement follows the industrial revolution. The maker movement follows the tech revolution. It gets us back into our bodies. “It is amazing, but culture has given us a message from our own unconscious,”  Carrie said.

Projects are also a way to combat stress and stress-related illness. Jumping into a hands-on project won’t take away the pain of a major life problem, of course, but if you develop it as a habit, it’s something to fall back on in times of difficulty. “We used to have to make things for practical reasons. Now it’s all done for us. Now we need to do it for health and happiness. We need to get back to that almost primitive ability that led us here,” said Carrie.

Stress a public health crisis

Alton pointed out that 70 percent of doctor visits are due directly or indirectly to stress.

That’s why maker spaces are a health and community service. Carrie cited a Harvard study that showed when folks are  trained in resilience skills and proper self-care, their doctor visits decreased by 43 percent. Self-care isn’t just eating right and exercising, either. “Making is a form of self-care.”

Bring generations together

Older members of our communities have skills that have been lost. We need to bring that back, and you can serve that purpose by teaching such skills, the speakers stressed. “People of different ages in the same learning space is good for everyone,” Carrie said.  “When people of varying ages are together, there is none of the agitation that can occur with a group comprised of people who are all close in age. Everyone is much more productive.”

What role do libraries and librarians play?

Alton and Carrie, who both grew up with strong bonds to libraries and librarians, plainly summarize the big takeaway of this presentation. “You are being creative and evolving and meeting the needs of your community… and now you’re evolving in this new way because the community desperately needs  this new you.”

Carrie only wanted to read biographies of girls when she was in elementary school. Finally, they ran out of them, so her librarian offered one on Miles Standish, which she didn’t appreciate! But she remembers her librarian more than anyone else from her elementary school  years. She sees parallels between librarians, therapists, wellness coaches, in that they all move people along to a more evolved and happy place.

Librarians, said Alton, are “the original search engine….better than Google. No search engine can match the deep human connection you provide.”

No matter how many Facebook friends you have, you can still be lonely. In fact, 30 percent of all people report loneliness, said Alton. “You can’t get [companionship] off your smartphone. “They’re not that smart!” he quipped.

“There is a big difference between being pushed by a principal or teacher or even a parent to succeed, and going to librarian to seek help. Librarians have a very important role in optimal living,” insisted Carrie.

As the presentation ended, the speakers took a few audience questions. Among them was the practical query asking where to turn for research to substantiate the health benefits of maker spaces in order to secure funding. Suggestions included Lifting Depression by Kelly Lambert (Basic Books, 2008) and The Hand by Frank Wilson (Pantheon, 1998), as well as the Barrons’ own book, The Creativity Cure.

“The fact is, someone stressed or anxious will have a hard time learning,” summed up Alton.

The last two questions and answers were as follows.

How we integrate making into the workplace?

It depends on the workplace, said Carrie. “You’d have to find the method or medium that makes sense, and make some aspect of the work able to be learned with the body. Walking is always good.”

“We have so much emphasized college over skilled work,” continued Alton. “We don’t teach anybody good, skilled, interesting, fulfilling work with their hands. Not everybody must go to college. Many gifted people can have fulfillment and a good living by learning a skill.”

How do you get people who claim they “just aren’t creative” to embrace making?

Everyone is creative, if you think about creativity as a mindset, explained Carrie. “If you free your thinking, you will start seeing the connection.”

Cooking, gardening, fixing things, making projects with your kids with cork and newspaper are all evidence of creativity. “Hand use and resourcefulness: that’s creativity,” said Carrie.

Bookmaking is a great making activity; it uses the hands, incorporating art and text. “It should be a part of every maker space in a library to carry on the tradition of the library,” stated Alton.

One final tip shared for those who run into “not creative” roadblock a lot is to stick with the term hand use. “I knew someone for whom vacuuming improved her mood, because it was connected to love for her family. Decorating a home can do the same thing,” shared Carrie.


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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and