Anselm Fraser, principal of the Chippendale furniture school

The psychology of sawdust

Anselm Fraser, principal, The Chippendale International School of Furniture, is writing a monthly article for the prestigious publication, The Woodworker.  Here’s his first article.

Woodworking, and teaching woodworking, has been my life and all of us who are somehow involved in woodworking, either as amateurs or professionals, love the whole business of working with wood.

In my monthly article for The Woodworker, I’ll try to pass on my love for woodworking, as well as some thoughts on how you can get more from your hobby or business.

But for me, the important first thing is that few of us bother to consider why we like woodworking so much.

The answer is both primal and at the core of who we are as human beings, and I was intrigued by a book Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In it, he describes what he terms as “elements of enjoyment” which include such things as the challenge involved, the merger of action and awareness, setting clear goals, the degree of concentration, and an altered sense of time.

The psychology bit is that today’s society is primarily focused on money and what money can buy.  The process of making something, whether it’s painting a picture or making a chest of drawers, doesn’t carry the same value.

What we’ve forgotten is that there is a personal and mental value in the making of things, because it gives us personal fulfilment which, in turn, promotes mental well-being.  Making things involves the elements of enjoyment that are so important to us mentally.

In today’s world, dominated by smart phones and tablets, and in which we buy almost everything we need, we no longer do those creative things that provide pleasure, meaning and pride.

The fact is that making things improves psychological well-being and research shows that activities such as woodworking are useful for decreasing stress, relieving anxiety and modifying depression.

Therefore, Csikszentmihalyi says, doing something creative and practical can be a natural antidepressant.

It is that combination of doing something creative to make something practical that makes woodworking so good for mental well-being.  Simply, you are using your mind and hands to make something functional.

According to psychologists, creativity is the ability to solve problems or create new things in novel ways.  Creativity therefore involves original thinking in the creation of something that actually works.

While some people seem to be naturally creative, there are things that you can do to increase your own creativity. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, creativity requires both a fresh perspective combined with discipline.

Or as Thomas Edison famously suggested, genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

It’s an approach that we try to instil in our students.  They may feel that they have little or no creativity, but the process of thinking through a design or woodworking challenge will naturally unlock the creative answer…and the one after that…and so on.

The late, great poet Maya Angelou said: “Creativity or talent, like electricity, is something I don’t understand but something I’m able to harness and use….The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have.”

I’ve always instinctively known that and, as a teacher, one of my great privileges is to pass that understanding onto others.


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