Humans need breaks. We need sleep. We need rest. We need … vacation.
One in four Americans don’t get any paid time off. Those of us who do have paid vacation, get, on average,10 to 14 days. We don’t use it all. And even when we do, many of us take work along and never quite unplug.
But we’d all be a lot better off if we did.
There’s now good science that shows taking regular vacation is correlated with better health, cardiovascular health in particular, and living a longer life. Anticipating vacation improves our mood and makes us happy.
Taking a relaxing vacation, savoring the moment and making memories, can make that good mood last longer after we return, as opposed to that slightly jet-lagged feeling after spending your vacation cramming fun-filled activities in from dawn to dusk, not really sure what you want to do, or maniacally rushing around to see every sight (circumnavigate the entire country of Ireland in a rental car in one week, anyone? Yeah, that was a bad idea.)
And time away from work can actually make us more energized, focused and productive when we come back to it.
wrote recently in the Washington Post about the benefit of “collective restoration.” Terry Hartig, an environmental psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, and his colleagues were familiar with the research on how vacations are good individuals. They wanted to see if vacations are good for societies. And, not surprisingly, vacations are. Your good mood and relaxed, calm state can act like a “contagion” and spread good mojo around to family friends, co-workers and to people you don’t even know, Hartig told me.
He and his colleagues studied anti-depressant prescription rates and noted that they dropped logarithmically during the month of July, when practically the entire country of Sweden closes up shop and goes on vacation. (By law, Swedish workers get 5 weeks of paid vacation a year, four of which they are allowed to take consecutively in the summer … And no, all you American workaholic skeptics, Sweden is not a slacker nation. It is about as productive per hour as the United States, international comparisons show. Still. Wow, five weeks? It is no small irony that most vacation research is done in Europe.)
There’s something really nice about taking time away from the office or from the job when you know everybody else is, too. It’s like you have collective permission. In the United States, vacation is sometimes frowned upon, or seen as a bother. “No one asks where you’re going,” one worker told me. “They just want to know when you’ll be back.” People report feeling guilty about taking vacation. They’re worried that they’ll be seen as less committed to the job – especially in work environments where the boss doesn’t take a break. Or they can’t really let themselves relax knowing that coworkers are busy getting stuff done or getting ahead, that their work and their inbox is just piling up and up and up.
So what do you do if you don’t live in Sweden?
First, lose the guilt. Click on the link to the science, above, and forward it to your boss and co-workers if you need to. Give yourself permission to just go.
Then, listen to Roger Mannell, a leisure researcher and psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. To truly seize the moment and savor the time off on vacation, no matter how long it is, you don’t need to go somewhere expensive or do anything particularly extraordinary. You need two things: choice and control.
As I wrote in “Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time,” Mannell has directed perhaps the only lab studies on our perceptions of leisure time. He found that when people have a sense of choice and control over how they spend their time, they’re more likely to become engrossed in what they’re doing, and are more likely to lose themselves in that timeless state of flow. That’s what some have described as peak human experience.
“Part of the problem with leisure is that people aren’t quite sure what they really want. They don’t know what leisure time is for them,” he told me. “And they never slow down long enough to figure it out.”
So do that.
Even if you only have a weekend off.  Or a day. Or an afternoon. Just stop for a minute. Pause. Take a breath. Think about what you’d really like to do, how you want to feel, what would be most fun or meaningful right now. Yes, catching up on bill paying may give you some relief, another check off on the To Do list, but trying something novel or a little challenging rewires the brain in positive ways. And if you give yourself time off and away to do something that gives you joy, even for a short amount of time now, bill paying becomes that much less onerous and time consuming later.
Consciously choosing leisure is the first step to reclaiming it. “The institutions we move in and out of in our daily lives have some responsibility for creating saner lives and need to change.” (are you listening American workplace laws, policies and culture?) “But something in us needs to change as well,” Mannell told me. “If we are really serious about finding more free time and having control over it, then we need to pursue the things that are really meaningful to us.”
I’ve been traveling around the country meeting with people, talking about Overwhelmed and listening to stories of peoples’ lives. (See my @BrigidSchulte
tweets #Overwhelmed Tales from the Road for some of the stories that I’m hearing. One that spoke to the hold work devotion has on the American psyche: one audience member at a recent speech said he’d be against a national vacation policy. “I would hate for a vacation police to come and force me to take one against my will.” Really?)
I was recently on the Today Show talking about vacation and the Overwhelm with Hoda and Kathie Lee and Meredith Rollins, editor in chief of Redbook. It was a ball. (And it isn’t just Kristen Wiig, they really do have glasses of wine at the ready at 10 am!)
Mary Cummings-Jordan of WHYY’s Radio Times also hosted a show on vacation with me and John Schmitt, a senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of the fascinating, if depressing, study, No Vacation Nation. (I also have the study on my web page under PLAY.) We talked about how the United States is the only advanced economy without a paid vacation policy and what that costs the economy and individuals.
Here are three great recent articles on vacation:
An idea worth spreading in Fast Company: TED gives its employees a mandatory two-week summer vacation. At the same time.
Financial Times reports that Daimler in Germany is now giving employees the option of having all their incoming emails deleted while they’re on vacation.
Although research shows the good feelings after vacation can be short-lived, Jennifer Senior writes in New York magazine that our bodies crave respite from real life.
In other news, Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time also recently named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year so far in Nonfiction and Business and Leadership!
What about you? Have you taken vacation this year? Did you have a sense of choice and control over your time? What worked? What would you like to do differently? Share your story, your struggles and your tips on my website.
“The richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love and play.” – Erik Erikson
Go Play!