Indulging in a hobby can bring benefits inside and outside of work
A few months ago, Robert Flowers, a chemistry professor and dean of College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh University in the US, was struggling to write a complex paper about the rare earth metal samarium. One evening, while Flowers – an amateur guitarist – was composing a new song, he had an epiphany. He went back to his desk and finished writing the manuscript.
He realised later that his initial approach to writing the paper had been wrong – and the songwriting process had curiously aided him. ‘I was able to make the analogy from kind of pulling everything together for the song and translate that to the manuscript that I was working on,’ says Flowers, adding that composing a song requires a person to think about transitions, the story and its impact – and these elements are important for presenting or talking about scientific work as well.
Why you need hobbies
Tammy Allen, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, US, and past president of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, says hobbies help professionals recover from work, which enables them to be better at their jobs. Indeed, research shows that leisure activities boost physical and mental health. ‘We [scientists] tend to be very engrossed in our work,’ says Allen. ‘It can be difficult to turn off – we want to run one more analysis, check one more research article. So hobbies can be a great way to make sure that we are able to detach.’
Tammy Allen, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, US, and past president of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, says hobbies help professionals recover from work, which enables them to be better at their jobs. Indeed, research shows that leisure activities boost physical and mental health. Another study led by Robert Root-Bernstein, a Michigan State University physiologist, even found that scientists who’d scored a Nobel prize were three times more likely to have an arts and crafts hobby than ordinary researchers.
When you’re thinking creatively in one space, you become creative in the other space
‘We [scientists] tend to be very engrossed in our work,’ says Allen. ‘It can be difficult to turn off – we want to run one more analysis, check one more research article. So hobbies can be a great way to make sure that we are able to detach.’
People are complex, and hobbies help fulfill different parts of themselves, says Indian neuroscientist Shubha Tole, who works at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai: ‘When you’re thinking creatively in one space, you become creative in the other space.’ Tole is a trained Kathak dancer and has also started to learn the keyboard recently. She clarifies that it works both ways for her: the science nurtures her other passions too. ‘The neuroscience somehow feeds into all of this music and dance because I find myself wondering: where does this ability to generate rhythm come from?’ she says.
Hobbies can also help you cultivate skills that are useful for your work. In her spare time, Gresley Wakelin-King, a geological consultant and honorary research fellow in the department of ecology, environment and evolution at La Trobe University in Australia, volunteers with Girl Guides, a non-profit dedicated to nurturing personal growth and leadership qualities in girls and young women. ‘It’s been a real surprise to me how much I’ve learned from my involvement with the Girl Guides,’ she says. For example, when she takes members out camping, Wakelin-King has to do a risk assessment, taking into account what can go wrong and providing any training the girls might need to stay safe. This is especially important for Wakelin-King because she has to routinely head to remote areas for her own research.
Finding time is hard, but not impossible
Childcare responsibilities can cause hobbies to fall by the wayside. Allen suggests combining family time and recreation; for example, you could go on family bike rides, or if you like photography, start photographing your children.
Setting boundaries is the first step towards developing something new
Moreover, make hobbies a priority. ‘If you want to do it badly enough, you do it, right?’ Tole says, suggesting that some things may have to fall off your calendar in order to make room for hobbies. Of course, it’s easier said than done. That’s why, Wakelin-King says, you need to learn to set boundaries for yourself – this is the first step towards allowing yourself space to develop something new. She suggests saying something to yourself like the following: ‘Even though I love this research I’m doing, tomorrow I’m going to do something else.’ Maybe you could skip that (one more) Crispr webinar to sign up for a crochet class you’ve been meaning to attend for ages, or go hiking?
Meanwhile, with many labs closed because of the pandemic, some scientists have found more time to focus on hobbies. Flowers has been regularly creating music during this time. Recently, a professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology created a cover of Gloria Gaynor’s hit I Will Survive, which had humorous references to the lockdown and virtual classroom experiences. Inspired by that, Flowers wrote a Lehigh University version of the song and posted it on social media. He also wrote a number called Lehigh Isolation Blues to the tune of Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash. The songs have resonated with students and other faculty members who thanked him over email and social media, helping Flowers bond with the student and teaching community in an unprecedented way.
So pick that ukulele lying untouched in your living room, or crank out some pandemic poetry – you never know where it may lead you.