Throwing yourself into an activity and gradually pursuing concrete, tangible progress is good for your brain. Many people discovered this firsthand during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they took up gardening, baking, and exercise. What all of these activities share in common is that they afford the person doing them a path toward improvement—and one where results can be traced back directly to the work you put in. This path is what I and many others call mastery.
Mastery makes you feel good for a number of reasons. Here are a few of the most powerful ones:
- You gain self-reliance and self-confidence.
- You learn how to pay deep and full attention, which in and of itself is good for mental health.
- You gain connection to others and belonging in a community. Even if these connections are not physical, they can be forged through books, films, exhibitions, and countless other ways that knowledge and traditions are shared.
- You get to experience living in a smaller and simpler world. Compared to the interconnected, 24-7 so-called “breaking news” environment that occupies so much of our mental space, an oven, a bread maker, a squat rack, or a front lawn and some seeds all seem quite manageable. In baking, fitness, or gardening, you are the main thing that influences the outcome. This type of self-determination is a lot closer to what our species evolved to experience. Our brains are wired for it.
Another supporting point for the benefits of mastery is this: It is already baked into some of the more common approaches to improving mental health. There is no doubt that exercise, meditation, and therapy offer their own intrinsic benefits. But I am starting to wonder if at least a part of why these practices are so effective is that they offer a path toward mastery. In exercise and meditation that path is clear. In therapy, it’s a bit more murky, but anyone who has worked with a good therapist over time observes progress, and of a variety that feels very real, in their relationship with themselves.
Regardless of the activity or pursuit in which you find it, it is good mental health practice to carve out time and space for mastery. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed years ago, “Happiness is the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.”