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A Slower Pace May Not Only Reduce Stress but Can Enhance Productivity

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Americans are well known for their strong belief in hard work. The idea that we can get ahead in life, achieve our goals and fulfill our dreams solely by virtue of our own efforts remains tightly woven into our cultural fabric. At the same time, there is a growing sense that our quality of life may be suffering from our restless pursuits, and that the (mostly material) rewards are perhaps not as gratifying as we hoped.

The strong public reaction to a car advertisement released by General Motors earlier this year, in which the company seemingly ridiculed French work ethics by comparison to ours, illustrates that ambiguity. According to the ad, the French put in fewer work hours, make less money, and therefore don’t have as many toys to play with, i.e. big, shiny cars. Thousands of viewers expressed their disagreement.

But it’s true. Not just France but many other European countries mandate shorter work weeks (35 to 37 hours) and longer vacations (4 to 6 weeks) than here. People also take hour-long lunch breaks and spend much time socializing with family and friends. Not quantity in terms of productivity and earnings seem foremost on their minds, but the quality of daily life.

Nobody can deny that this comparatively slow pace has its problems and may not be sustainable forever, at least not to its present extent. But there is no doubt that having a full life outside of work can provide important benefits many of us sorely miss out on.

A recent study by researchers at San Francisco State University found that pursuing interests after work, especially when they appeal to one’s creative side, may not only reduce stress and stress-related health risks, but also enhance productivity when people return to their daytime jobs.

For the study, several hundred participants were surveyed in terms of how active they were after regular work hours. As it turns out, those who pursued hobbies like painting, writing and other creative activities also performed better in their professional occupation, compared to those who spend their free time more passively, e.g. by watching TV.

It seems that engaging in different kinds of pursuits, some to earn a living, others for recreation and pastime, is especially helpful for the brain.

“Creative activity may provide an experience of discovery and growth, which includes the discovery of new cognitive pathways,” wrote Dr. Kevin Eschleman, a psychologist at S.F. State and lead author of the study report.

More than daily routines and repeating performances, creative activities, which many of us can only take up in their personal time, can give us a sense of mastery and control over our lives, which in turn may benefit all other performance-related outcomes, the researchers concluded.

As for the French – whom some like to characterize as such slackers – they rank among the most productive workers in the world. Go figure.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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