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Creative leisure

Hobbies can increase productivity and improve the ability to innovate

Bernardo França

When she is not in one of the laboratories of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University of São Paulo (ICB-USP), involved in research about the immune response to leptospirosis, Dr. Lourdes Isaac is cooking, weaving quilts and carpets, or caring for her garden. She explains that these activities help her to disconnect from the stressful routine at the university. “Often our study objectives are abstract or may take a long time to be realized,” she says. “With weaving, after a few days, a bunch of tangled threads transforms into a fabric with texture and colors that did not exist before, which is very gratifying.”

She recounts that, in the beginning, she felt guilty for having interests not related to scientific work. “Over time, I realized that I could incorporate them into my routine.” Like Dr. Isaac, many scientists have difficulty letting go of the demands of teaching and research activities in order to invest in personal interests. On average, researchers can work up to 80 hours per week, without stopping on weekends and holidays. These findings were the result of a survey carried out by Nature magazine in 2016. However, in recent years, studies reveal that practicing leisure activities on a regular basis can help reduce mental stress, improve the balance between work and personal life, increase productivity, and enhance the creative abilities of researchers, thus supporting their capacity to develop innovative solutions for their investigations.

Bernardo França

The findings presented in the Nature study are coherent with those of two other studies. One of them was published in Psychological Science magazine in August 2012, and it verified that time spent in new leisure activities can contribute to improved capacity to resolve problems, stimulating creativity and insights regarding new approaches or overlooked details. Such practices also allow researchers to find satisfaction in completing small projects.

Another study, which was published four years earlier in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, claimed that the winners of the Nobel prize are almost two times more likely to have hobbies related to the arts or manual work than those who work for the National Academy of Sciences in the United States or the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. The study utilized data published in researcher autobiographies, biographies, and obituaries. “Forcing the brain to perform activities that are not related to research work can help increase cognitive flexibility,” confirmed psychologist Dean Simonton of the University of California, Davis, when interviewed by Nature.

“Weaving helps me to more calmly think about and evaluate recent facts involving my research,” adds Dr. Isaac. Another benefit of practicing creative activities is the possibility of giving the mind a break from the discipline required in the lab, for example. It is not unusual for researchers to also have to deal with administrative tasks related to planning and managing team projects, completing reports, and developing new proposals for project financing. The resulting physical and mental exhaustion can trigger “creative blocks” when it is not possible to find a solution to a certain problem and advance scientific reflection.

Bernardo França

Simonton explains that the synergy of ideas sometimes happens accidentally. “It is not initially obvious how an interest in painting can be useful for an astronomer,” he explains. “However, the path to having innovative insights requires that researchers combine a wide variety of organized thoughts and diverse experiences.” Any pastime can be useful. Ecologist Thomas Lewinsohn from the Institute of Biology at the University of Campinas (IB-UNICAMP), for example, takes advantage of small breaks during field activities, or when he is at the beach, to take photos (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 248). For 20 years, geneticist Peter Pearson, from the Institute of Biosciences of the University of São Paulo (IB-USP), is engaged in the construction of a sailboat in the region of Ilhabela, along the São Paulo coast (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 264).

Practicing sports is also an option. Rodrigo Elias de Oliveira, during his work at his orthodontic practice, during research activities at IB-USP or as a bioanthropologist in Minas Gerais, takes time to run, row, and cycle. “Sports help me to unwind, clear my mind, and relax,” he says. He dedicates several hours of his day, at least three times a week, to biking or rowing in the Olympic lanes at USP. “Beyond defusing both personal and professional issues, sports help me to stay in shape, which is key when I work such long hours in the clinic, the lab, or in the field,” he explains.

The search for enjoyable leisure activities can help researchers reduce mental stress and improve the balance between work and personal life

Since 2015, dentist Luciana Saraiva, of the School of Orthodontics at USP (FO-USP), is a swimmer. “When I’m in the pool, I try not to think about anything,” she comments. “But sometimes I reflect on my problems at FO-USP, considering what I should do in each situation.” She recounts that she has already had insights about project titles, research collaborations, or new approaches to studies underway while she did laps in the pool. And for musician Rogério Moraes Costa, a researcher with the Department of Music at the School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo, practicing sports, particularly cycling, is part of his daily routine. “Working with music, which is very enjoyable, I often get the feeling that work and hobbies are intertwined. But obviously it is not quite like that,” he says. “My pastimes are related to cycling, reading, and playing the piano and saxophone for pleasure only, but often are connected, even indirectly, to my work.”

Despite the benefits already identified by science, it is not always easy to find time to develop a hobby. In order to motivate researchers to invest time in leisure activities, last year the Academy of Medical Sciences, United Kingdom, launched the “MedSciLife” campaign to share stories about researchers who develop or participate in activities that are not strictly academic. “Before I began to swim, I didn’t have time for anything,” comments Saraiva. “It took a few years for me to be able to incorporate swimming into my schedule at the university. Today, I only miss it if I have a doctor’s appointment.”