Recently British television rebroadcast a series of programs called Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home (#ManMadeHome), featuring the well-known designer, writer, and presenter.
Since the late 90s, McCloud has presented the Grand Designs series where every program focuses on the efforts of people (usually a couple) to design and build their own house. Over the years I’ve watched these grand designs take shape, many wonderful, beautiful, awe-inspiring homes have been built, some subterranean, some located in far-away forests with no sewer services, and some created from converting old buildings, like windmills, water tanks and concrete bunkers.As with other reality TV shows, the design and construction techniques aren’t the main source of entertainment. This comes from witnessing the blood, sweat, and tears of people like you and me, as their plans drift, structural problems emerge, and budgets run out. Thankfully most Grand Designs couples emerge from their building projects triumphant, elated, and proud (and also relieved, substantially poorer, and with more wrinkles and grey hairs!)
The Man Made Home series is slightly different in that it’s about McCloud’s own attempts to build a shed in woodland in the southwest of England. It may not be the same in other countries, but in the UK there is a long running joke about the importance to a man of owning a shed of his own, a shed he can call “home.” Apparently it’s what every grown male wants. The shed represents a refuge from the stress of work, from noisy, demanding kids, from the responsibilities of adult life. It’s a place where a man can be happy with his own company, alone with his power tools.
In this series the main challenge is that the cabin should be sustainable and eco-friendly, so all the materials have to be recycled, or as McCloud puts it, “repurposed,” stuff originally built for one specific function but now used for another. Oh, and he has to do all the work himself. This project is about making and doing, rather than buying and consuming.
Man Made Home meets PERMA
So what has all this got to do with positive psychology you might be wondering? Well, very early on McCloud talks about happiness: we seem to be working harder and consuming more than ever, he comments, but for all the stuff that comes with 21st century living, we don’t seem to be much happier. An estimated 6 million Brits feel anxious and depressed.
“So, can living a simpler life make us happier?” he asks. Of course he hopes this “shed of his imagination” will be a bolt-hole, a retreat from the stress and madness of the modern world. As one of his friends put it, “It’ll be a place to play in and a place to enjoy.” But very quickly it becomes much, much more than that. It isn’t just the outcome (the cabin itself) that’s important, it’s the process of making it. As the project unfolds through the spring and summer of 2012, and the foundations of the cabin are laid, the walls go up, and roof goes on, we see Seligman’s PERMA model of well-being in action:
P – Positive Emotions
The great thing about watching this series is that it’s jam-packed with positivity, optimism, hope, and good humor. It’s not that everything always works out as planned, far from it. But even when things go wrong, there’s an enduring sense that whatever happens, we’ll learn from it and move on. On top of that, there’s
- the sheer excitement of using explosives to split tree trunks for the initial cabin structure (a technique borrowed from the USA apparently)
- the fun of making (and drinking!) home-made beer for the Topping Out ceremony
- luxuriating in an outdoor hot tub made from the housing of an old 737 jet engine
- appreciating the beauty of glass handmade from sand, the luxury of a hand-woven alpaca wool bath robe, and a reclining chair lovingly crafted from a rusting tractor chassis, scrap metal dredged from the bottom of the canal, and a deer hide that otherwise would have been composted
- inspiration from observing and experiencing the strengths and expertise of other people, along with the joy of working with them and learning from them.
The experience of flow (complete absorption in the task) is evident on many levels in creating the Man Made Home, more often than not in learning a new skill from other people or experimenting with them, for example in
- making and laying the cabin’s cheese and mud floor (a medieval recipe!)
- making superglue from rabbit skins and human urine
- learning to shear an alpaca (the wool is later woven into a bathrobe)
- tanning the deer skin to produce soft leather for the veranda’s reclining chair
What’s interesting is that flow seems to arise quite readily from pushing yourself to try new experiences and learn new things, stepping outside your comfort zone. There’s no need to draw up life lists or plan big adventures in order to be happy. As McCloud says, “We can all have small adventures every weekend.”
R – Relationships
McCloud realizes very quickly that he needs the support and expertise of other people in order to complete the cabin of his dreams. These include:
- Kev-the-Pipe, a specialist in off-grid heating and plumbing who helps create a wood-burning stove from an old jewelry safe and plumbs in the outdoor hot tub
- Sidney Alford, the septuagenarian who splits the 10 ton oak trunks with explosives when hand-tools can’t do the job
- Will, McCloud’s Man Friday, who can build any tool for any purpose and turn his hand to anything
- The like-minded friends of friends, who turn up to finish cutting the 2500 timber tiles needed for the roof just when McCloud’s enthusiasm and energy are waning.
As McCloud himself says, “It’s impossible to do everything in the world by yourself. You need help, you need support, and then you need friends with whom to enjoy the fruits of your labors!”M – Meaning
In a very short space of time the overall project and the many steps along the way take on a significance of their own for the people involved. Making stuff yourself, turning scrap or waste materials into useful objects with your own hands isn’t just enjoyable and efficient, “It has more story, more meaning,” than anything you can buy in a shops. In the Man Made Home, meaning also comes from making a connection with the world outside, for example, making the cabin from oak trees felled 50 yards away and making glass for the windows from sand, working with nature rather than against her.
A – Achievement
This is probably the most obvious PERMA attribute, because the outcome of the year-long project is something tangible, a unique, beautiful, hand-crafted wooden cabin, entirely sustainable and eco-friendly, something to be enjoyed, savored, and appreciated for many years to come, both alone and in the company of friends.
Five lessons from the Man Made Home
Personally I think this series makes a great teaching tool for students of positive psychology; there are so many different insights into what happiness is, where it comes from, how to apply PERMA and so on. For me the main learning points are as follows:
- The five pathways outlined in PERMA are actually all around us.
- In the song Beautiful Boy, John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” So we need to notice these pathways, appreciating the opportunities there are in everyday life to follow them.
- Finding ways to connect with nature and the world around you is an essential part of the picture.
- Making things is a vastly undervalued happiness-inducing activity, and so much more valuable to us, on so many different levels, than consuming.
- Enduring happiness may be best thought of as something you create, like a story. It’s formed over time and with effort, from what you do, who you do it with, and how you do it, rather than something you purchase off the shelf.
At the end, when his hand-built cabin in the woods is finished, does Kevin McCloud look happy? You bet! “I’ve discovered a secret truth,” he confides, “that out of making spring relationships – with materials, place, a building, and people – which can make us all a bit happier.”
So, what are you making at the moment?
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing