Is Manual Labor the Key to Happiness?

One author advocates trading in your office job to work with you hands

Dreading another year of the same old routine at the same old office job? Maybe it’s time to trade in your keyboard and mouse for a monkey wrench or shovel. If you hate your job, says Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, blame the corporate machine. A think tank manager turned mechanic, Crawford argues that many desk jobs have become so specialized and task-oriented that one rarely sees any tangible results -- never mind ones that actually make a difference. The true ticket to 9-to-5 bliss, he says, is in working with your hands.

When you look back at what you’ve done come the end of the day, what are your accomplishments? When I was schlepping into a corporate office, my daily to-dos ranged from copying and pasting content into spreadsheets to updating web site home pages with clever and clickable headlines. Some days it was enjoyable, and other times it was unbearable -- which is what most of us would probably say about our current positions. But I was always left with the thought, what difference am I making in people’s lives?

Then my friend introduced me to The Fabulous Beekman Boys, a show about a gay urbanite couple who decides to leave corporate America to live off the land in Upstate New York. They became pig and goat farmers, making and selling soap and artisanal cheese. It’s not a glamorous life -- in fact, it looks like long hours of back-breaking work. The simple life, say the execs-turned-farmers, is not so simple. Still, I was smitten with their new lifestyle. It reminded me that all of my skills would be completely useless outside of modern society -- and that, left to fend for myself, I would never survive outside of its comforts.

This, according to Crawford, is why we would be happier working harder at more authentic pursuits, where we actually see the results of our labor.

I spent five hours on January 2nd testing that theory by taking my toilet apart. It had been leaking on and off for two months, and I was loathe to call a plumber for the third time in six months. I borrowed my dad’s ancient Time-Life home repair book, looked up a few video tutorials online and consulted the guys at the hardware shop. Then I crossed my fingers and dug in. The most plumbing I’d ever done up until this point was to jiggle the handle and once, I even stuck a plunger into the toilet. As I dismantled the tank from the seat, my biggest surprise was how satisfying the work was. It felt great to be demystifying what turns out to be a rather simple machine. I installed all of the new parts, double- and triple-checked my work and put the toilet back together. I was ecstatic as I turned the water back on, giddy to pat myself on the back with my grime-covered hands. I flushed the toilet and voila! Out spewed even more water than before. I was heart-broken. I took the toilet apart and re-installed all the new pieces again and again, called my dad and his friend who’s a plumber. They were all as flummoxed as I. My pride in a job well done was squelched. I took a shower, went over to my friend’s house and played video games -- which I rocked, by the way. Finally, the sense of mastery that I’d been seeking all day came in the form of a fun but meaningless task that had nothing to do with the real world.

Three days later, my toilet is still sitting in disrepair, as I decide whether or not to call in the plumber. While I agree that working with your hands and fixing something is a great way to feel more connected to the world, I’m not inclined to believe there’s something magical about manual labor in and of itself. Rather, it’s the gratification that comes with solving a problem that provides immediate benefits. When our toilet is fixed, it will be great to have two functioning bathrooms again. And if I’m the one who makes that happen, well, that’s definitely icing on the cake. But for now, that will have to wait until I finish writing this blog post, which may or may not be having any real or lasting effect on your life.

Do you think there’s something inherently more satisfying in manual labor? Chime in below.

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