Physical work not only promotes a sound body, but as it turns out, it also protects the mind. As revered Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli once said, “Hard work leaves no room for fear.” His work led him to discover life’s greatest riches—love, dignity, integrity, and inner strength—in the images of the hard-working contadini whom he photographed. Simple sweat and toil is an instinctual Italian prescription for emotional health. Our bel paese ancestors knew on an unconscious level, that the moment-to-moment mechanics of corporal work has a lulling, transcendent effect, not unlike prayer. Full engagement with a task that requires physical energy—from sweeping a driveway to planting a garden —-can bring about emotional relief; a precursor to benessere, well-being.
Italian women will often choose good old-fashioned housework to lift their spirits. In a relatively recent Proctor and Gamble survey, Italy not only ranked first among other European nations for the number of hours spent on household chores; it also beat the U.S. 21-4 on the average number of hours that Italian homemakers dedicate to cleaning their casa each week. While to many of us twenty-one hours scrubbing floors might seem extreme, there is no doubt that in addition to the satisfaction of a well kept home, there is also an emotional benefit to movement that goes beyond mere caloric burn.
The psychological research confirms that physical activity, besides keeping the body in shape, is also one of the most effective ways to stimulate a good mood. My Italian relatives on the remote farms near Benevento are in constant motion well into their eighties– planting wheat, picking fava beans, making wine, preparing group feasts, or caring for the animals. Despite life’s hardships I have never seen insurmountable sadness, worry, or general negativity control their daily ongoings. Che ci posso fare, is the refrain, when faced with a problem that cannot be changed. In lieu of the mental knots of rumination, hard work becomes their solution for making molehills out of mountains.
Are you feeling angry or frustrated? Try funneling that energy into waxing your car. Worried about these uncertain times? Take the dog for a run, or clean out your cellar. Even when experiencing loss or bereavement, some gentle physical movement gradually brings your confidence back, reaffirms the gift of life, and helps you to move forward, one step at a time. Not only does physical work distract you from negativity while you are engaged in the movement itself, but it also brings pride and satisfaction once the job is done.
This week try drawing up a list of physical tasks you have been putting off for “someday when you have time”, such as cleaning out drawers, arranging linen closets, painting a door, or painting the house trim. The next time you feel plagued with negative thoughts or emotions, try rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. You’ll find that lavoro manuale is an old time simple solution that still “works.”