Questions about fidget spinners, making, and wellbeing

Yesterday marked the start of Sydney Craft Week, a new festival that celebrates the local craft community in Sydney, and a few weeks ago I attended a workshop called ‘Neural Knitworks’ as part of The Big Anxiety Festival,  where we knitted and crocheted neurons while a neuroscientist talked to us about the human brain. I figured this would be a good time to post something about some thoughts I’ve had about crafts this week. – And they’re exactly that, thoughts. I haven’t done any proper research, other than reading bits and pieces here and there. The perfectionist in me doesn’t want to send this post out into the world yet. But, it’s Saturday, and the deal is that I write in the morning, and publish by midday. I guess I mainly want to ask some questions about what we do and don’t do, what that might say about the culture we live in, and the effects of it on our lives and our wellbeing. (To be continued, I’m sure.)

The other day, a friend and I were talking fantasising about the future and the kind of work we’d like to do. I told her that I want to be more than a brain in front of a computer, that I want to use my hands, my senses, that I want to make things. In the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between craft and wellbeing. I want to learn more about it, and perhaps at some point teach others what I’ve learnt. I then took off on a long rant about the importance of crafts and making.

Without wanting to sound too negative, it seems to me that we’re not makers anymore. We’re buyers and consumers. Not everyone, of course, and not in all aspects of our lives. But how many people have ever made a piece of clothing, grown their own beans, sculpted their own tea mug, sewn a hanky? How many young people know how to darn a sock or even to sew on a button, or to bake a cake? There’s just no need for us to make anymore. Everything’s available right at our fingertips. Going to the shops (or filling online shopping baskets) is much faster and easier – and, to a lot of people with busy lives, simply makes a lot more sense.

But does it make more sense? And is there really no need for making anymore? Everywhere you look, there are news stories about increasing numbers of people suffering from some mental illness or other, we all know people (including ourselves) who struggle with constant high levels of anxiety and regularly have panic attacks, people are unsatisfied with their lives – “Is this really it?”, “Is this all there is?” – and feel disconnected. It’s quite likely that the development of fields such as (pop) psychology and psychiatry, the identification and our internalisation of symptoms of some ‘popular’ mental illnesses, the mantra that we have to be happy all the time and that if we aren’t we are inherently deficient/pathological, the push to always achieve more and better, have something to do with this. But there has to be more.

On the train home, I got a message from my friend. She’d been thinking about what I said about people needing to use their hands more often, and wondered if people would still need fidget spinners if they did more crafts. Interesting!

Fidget spinners became all the rage earlier this year. Offices, schools, CEOs, uni students, none were immune to them. A quick google search tells me that fidget spinners help alleviate not only nervous energy but also anxiety. They increase attention span and focus, and cure lifelong nail biting habits. Some schools, however, have banned them. Kids were apparently having competitions amongst themselves in class or were not focussing on the teacher. Proponents argue that schools simply need to have a conversation with their students about proper use, because the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

I think both sides are missing the point. Why is it that adults and kids alike need to spin a piece of plastic (because we really do need more plastic gadgets in this world, right!) on their finger/tongue/toe nail to be able to function these days? Why are so many people engaging in this largely unproductive activity to feel better?

Could there be a link between mental wellbeing, fidget spinners, and making things? When I wrote that fidget spinning is unproductive, I wasn’t referring to productivity in the traditional, instrumental sense. Productivity is not, “I do this activity which will result in this physical object or that measurable outcome in the shortest amount of time.” Fidget spinners are instantly efficient, which is quite similar to why we’re not making: making is not the fastest way from A to B. Making is not instant. Crafts take time to master, and there’s always more to learn, they’re always in process. At the same time, ask any crocheter what happens to them as soon as they pick up their crochet, and they’ll tell you that an instant sense of calm comes over them and that they’re able to concentrate better on what is happening around them if they’re working on an easy project. But I would argue that making things is productive in a lot of other ways, too, that we can’t get from playing with a plastic piece of tornado. There’s the touching of materials or ingredients as a sensory experience, discovering our connection with our environment through the materials we use, using and developing motor and intellectual skills, fostering creativity and experimentation, learning something new and slowly but surely noticing ourselves getting better at it, the feeling of having made something and the sense of accomplishment, the sharing of ideas with others, the calming effect of repetitive acts, the being and staying with and in a project.

Perhaps, instead of ‘wake up – check phone at breakfast and on train – sit at computer at work – check phone on train and at dinner – go to gym – watch TV while checking phone – go to bed,’ we should include some making in our days. Buy a paint by numbers kit, learn to crochet, plant some seeds, bake a tray of biscuits, build a castle from toilet paper rolls, darn your socks, get a block of clay, carve a pointy end to a stick you found in the park. Touch materials, play with them, craft them into something. The end goal is not creating art or useful things, even though beauty and use are great. The doing regularly is more important, and can have lasting effects on our wellbeing. We can make things, we are makers, and we shouldn’t forget it.

Other stuff:

  • Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall. I loved everything about this novel. In my reading, it plays with the boundaries between friendship and love and whether that’s a tenable distinction, and about how to negotiate the pull of home and a yearning for adventure.
  • Some interesting thoughts on deleting Instagram.
  • This beautiful post by Kate from Foxs Lane, on a simple life and not wanting bigger things. It resonates so much with where I’m at right now.
  • I took myself to the movies last week and watched Battle of the Sexes. What a great film! It was happy and sad and hurtful and inspiring and uplifting and depressing and exciting and so much more. I was shocked that I’d never heard of these events before – I teach gender studies, so that’s not ok! I guess it’s telling of the kinds of stories and history that are told, taught, and valued…

Are you planning to do some crafts/making this weekend? Have you used a fidget spinner? Have you read any great novels or opinion pieces lately? I’d love to hear about what’s happening in your world!

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