Catch up with the Curious Campus podcast

Leisure is the ticket to less stress, better health

The stresses of everyday life build up and can be detrimental to our health and sleep. More easy-access resources are needed to help people cope, according to two health psychologists, who have shown that tapping into leisure activities can be a powerful tool to manage everyday stress.

They are trying to figure out exactly why leisure activities are health-protective and are searching for ways to enhance their effects.

Marcellus Merritt, an associate professor of psychology, and Matthew Zawadzki, an associate professor at the University of California-Merced, offer some tips in this Q&A.

When can stress harm our health?

Merritt: Stress is endemic i n our lives – and there’s a “good” and a “bad” variety. Our bodies can handle random stresses. But if we have it constantly, that’s when it can grow and become chronic. So, our goal is to develop preventive models to help people optimize the good stressors and minimize the bad stress.

If we can’t avoid stress, how can we manage it better?

Merritt: One of the things (we) are focusing on this notion of leisure as an inherent model of stress reduction. The idea is, “Why don’t we focus on what we already like to do and figure out ways to help you do that better?” So, if you like to golf for leisure, figure out why golf helps you feel better and build solutions around that approach. Is it because you become absorbed and forget your problems? Is it because it gets you engaged in social interaction so you get “out of your head?”

Tell us a little about the study.

Zawadzki: We went outside of the lab and tracked people in their everyday lives to find out what they are doing and feeling in the moment. And we follow them along in a couple of ways. The first is they have a wearable on – sometimes it’s a watch and sometimes it’s a little electrode on the chest. This gives us in depth information on things like heart rate or how active are you at a certain time. Then we also have apps we put on people’s phones that put out a push notification every so often for a quick assessment. We ask them questions like what they are doing. Are you engaging in leisure? Are you working? How stressed do you feel?

Did those point to any correlations?

Zawadzki: It was shocking how big of an effect it showed. People reported (being) 10% happier in all the moments when they’re doing leisure and 30% less stressed. One of the things that really stood out was when we looked at their heart rate data, which came in 4% lower when engaged in leisure. That may not sound like a lot, but the effect was long-term. It lasted for 30 minutes to two hours.

What makes leisure therapeutic?

Merritt: It’s related to this notion of being absorbed. We’re finding evidence that people who are more distracted when they do their leisure choice, report sleeping better and have fewer depressive symptoms.

It also depends on the individual and their particular engagement with a leisure activity. Playing golf may put you in a better mood, whereas for me, the challenge is exhilarating, and for a third person playing golf just may be more of a social activity on a Saturday afternoon.

We all know that exercise helps to reduce stress, but can a sedentary pastime, like reading, also work?

Zawadzki: We’ve come to that conclusion that any activity could be beneficial, but it depends on how you’re doing that activity. Exercise isn’t the only way. When I was growing up my mom had her own ritual each night. She took a bubble bath at 9 pm sharp. So even though it was a sedentary activity, she relaxed and allowed herself to let go of the worries, even for 30 minutes.

By Laura Otto, University Relations

Celebrating the holidays in a tapestry of traditions

As the holiday song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Around the world, families and friends are gathering, whether virtually or in person, to exchange gifts, share stories or feast on sweets and home-cooked meals. The holidays also give people an opportunity to celebrate their cultural traditions and heritage. The pandemic changed some traditions, but others continued and are returning this year – sometimes in a different way.

On this episode of Curious Campus, two folklore experts talk about the origins of some of our holiday traditions. We talk with Simon Bronner, dean of UWM’s College of General Studies, distinguished professor of social sciences and an internationally known expert in folklore. Joining Bronner is Meghan Murphy-Lee, a senior lecturer at UWM in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature who has taught classes on Russian culture and Slavic folklore.

Why are there so many holidays this time of year?

Bronner: Holidays are tied into seasonal cycle. With winter approaching, particularly in the northern climes, the days are dark and dreary, so holidays help compensate for that. It’s one of the functions besides celebrating certain events. A lot of people are inside because of the cold, so holidays provide an excuse to get together and that’s important. Some would argue with television and the media we don’t need that connection, but there’s also the argument that in a mobile society, holidays are also serving even more so as homecomings and ways to be with family.

How has social media changed the way we celebrate holidays?

Bronner: There might be a view that people will hold that it displaced traditions, but I believe it has enhanced them because people are learning about different traditions outside of their own families and neighborhoods. They’re asking questions about them and even participating in them. In addition, there is this sense of connection in that people of different backgrounds can share their traditions with others who are interested.

Murphy-Lee: In talking to Russian friends and colleagues, I’ve found they’ve been able to reconnect with the Russian New Year and friends there through social media. There’s a romantic comedy called ‘The Irony of Fate” that many Russians traditionally watch on New Year’s Eve and they can do that together now online. It has allowed Russians in the U.S. to celebrate with friends and family in Russia with a toast on Skype or video conferencing. They can relive traditions with their families.

What are some traditions unique to Wisconsin?

Bronner: When I came to Milwaukee, I was a little taken aback at what was announced as a Christmas tradition of eating raw beef. People used the term cannibal sandwiches or tiger meat. That was something I was not familiar with. I found out this wasn’t exactly cold cuts. This was something that tended to be done at Christmas time. Upon further research it does seem to come from the German roots of this area. There is something called mettwurst, which is a German kind of sausage with raw meat.

What is the origin of the holidays in Russia and the Slavic countries?

Murphy-Lee: The Christmas holidays date back to a pagan holiday called Koliada which was around the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. A lot of it involved feasting and singing. That transferred to the Christian holiday of Christmas and now to New Year’s. Children go door-to-door singing songs and collect treats.

By Kathy Quirk, University Relations