The Science of Holidays

(June 17th, 2016) Summer brings delight: at least that’s what you might think. Scientific literature suggests that the idea of what is good or bad weather is highly individual, that even short breaks can be therapeutic and that, on holiday, you’d do well completely to forget about work.

While it’s pouring outside, your colleagues are posting photos of their holidays on sun-kissed beaches beneath an azure sky, with stunning views. The temptingly relaxed tone of their comments heightens your desire to leave the pitch-black microscope room and dimly lit corridors of the workplace and to stretch out your winter-pale limbs somewhere in the sun.

Such a break does not have to be long. Researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, reported that even short holidays of four to five days improved health and wellbeing. However, the effect faded rapidly: within a few days of returning home, as we know from experience. Important factors for a recuperative break were relaxation and psychological detachment from work, time spent conversing with your partner and pleasurable holiday activities. Working during the holidays interfered with detachment and reduced feelings of health and wellbeing after the holidays. No wonder some people give the wrong mobile number to avoid agitated telephone calls from colleagues during the holidays - just to inquire where a certain plasmid could be found in the freezer, what the handwritten label on that tube said, and why, on earth, the dextran sulphate stock solution was empty, again! When you are sitting on a beach, the list of demands can be seemingly endless and utterly remote… When would the new postdoc like to do the next journal club and, by the way, please could she immediately send a draft of the grant application?

However, dermatologists warn that too much sun will damage your skin. Researchers from the Medical University of Lodz, Poland, found that a week’s holiday on the island of Tenerife, Spain, is sufficient to induce molecular signs of photoaging in the skin. On the other hand, avoidance of the sun may lead to vitamin D deficiency and to the development of osteomalacia or rickets, as in the case of a six-year-old from Leicestershire, whose overly cautious mother always ‘protected’ her son with factor 50 sunscreen, when he was playing outside.

Should you urgently need an escape in the sun but are cash-strapped, you might consider a sponsored ‘holiday’ as a participant in a well-funded dermatological study on the effects of UV radiation – with the approval of the Ethics Committee, informed consent and in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The trade-off is that you might have to wear a UV radiation dosimeter on your wrist, have skin biopsies taken and be obliged to keep a half-hourly diary record of your location and clothing throughout the day.

If this does not sound like your kind of holiday, you probably do not like work to interfere with your leisure activities. Perhaps you do not flourish at all in the sun because your lab or office, located at the institute’s top floor without air conditioning, already has a tropical climate during the summer months, impeding intellectual productivity and increasing your longing for a cool breeze. Perhaps you also belong to the category of ‘summer haters’, whose mood worsens with warmer and sunnier weather and who tend to be happier and less fearful and angry in wet weather. When scientists from Utrecht University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from Humboldt University Berlin, Germany, and from the Catholic University Leuven, Belgium, analysed the correlation between weather and mood, they identified three further categories: ‘summer lovers’, ‘rain haters’ and people, whose happiness, anxiety or anger were ‘unaffected’ by the weather. At nearly 48 percent, the latter constituted the largest category among the teenage interviewees of Dutch-Caucasian origin. In the case of ‘summer lovers’ and ‘rain haters’, the particular kind of reaction to weather seems to be a family trait, which might be transmitted either, or both socially and genetically.

Despite the advice of ant expert and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson to young scientists that “real scientists do not take vacations”, the Lab Times team wishes its readers uplifting and inspiring holidays, no matter whether you prefer the heat of Southern Italy, the icy climate of Spitzbergen or the rainy weather of the West Highlands of Scotland. We will be back again at the beginning of July, more relaxed and most likely somewhat photo-aged…

Bettina Dupont

Photo: Van de Velde

Last Changes: 08.09.2016