You count the days. You spend weeks planning and hours packing. Your friends, family, and every citizen within a 20 mile radius knows you’re leaving and exactly where you’re going. Are you looking that forward to the destination or to leaving behind all the – well, you know? Maybe it’s the sheer novelty more than anything else. You’ve needed something new. You’re ready to check out, break out, get away, forge ahead, and dig in. Just how long has it been since you up and left last time? How long has it been since your last great vacation?
Too often (especially in the United States), we forgo vacation. Although Americans tend to get fewer days off than many in other parts of the world, we’re infamous for passing on the vacation days we do get. Recent statistics show a mere 57% of us actually take advantage of our full vacation allotment. In France (where employers are required to give a minimum of thirty days vacation ), almost 90% of workers use up their time . In 2010, our unspent vacation days added up to $67 billion in equivalent wages.
Money is tight. There’s too much going on at work right now. We might need extra time at the holidays. The kids are busy in school/activities/camps anyway. For many of us, there’s always a reason not to get away.
We pay a price, I think, as individuals and perhaps as a society for placing such little value on vacation. A good vacation, of course, has the power to melt away stress, fatigue, and frustration. It allows us to luxuriate in bold, intrepid idleness. Alternatively, a vacation can challenge us, push us in new directions. We see new places, meet new people, try different activities. We dare or just take the time to do things we wouldn’t in the course of “normal” life.
In the brief standstill of time away, the blur of the last months comes into focus: what’s happened in the family, what’s happened to us, how the kids have grown. A vacation gives us time to reconnect with our partners, children, and maybe old friends. We rediscover ourselves again – the lighthearted, adventurous, better selves that tend to get displaced in the demands of our regular routine.
As mentally restorative as vacations are, they do our bodies good as well. (I mean more than that tan from the beach of course.) A number of medical studies demonstrate the independent health-protective benefits of time away. Researchers followed more than 12,000 men ages 35 to 57 who were labeled high risk for heart disease. Over a nine year period, they found those who took yearly vacations showed a 21% “reduced risk of all-cause mortality” and a 32% reduced risk of cardiovascular related mortality – after accounting for factors like income, education, and other health factors.
Analysis of the Framingham Heart Study showed  that women who vacationed very seldom (less than once every seven years) were approximately eight times more likely to experience a heart attack or receive a heart disease diagnosis than those who vacationed often (two or more times a year).
In less dire terms, other research showed that two to three days into a vacation subjects were obtaining an additional hour or more of quality sleep. In response, their reaction times improved more than 80%  and continued to be 25% higher following their trips. More than half of vacationers in a related survey said their work stress was reduced between 10- 25%  by vacation time. Other research has highlighted increased happiness , improved mood, and diminished physical complaints (PDF ) as a result of vacation time.
Of course, not all vacations are created equal. I’m not extolling extravagance here. A breakneck trip around the world can leave a person tired and emotionally empty as much as an enterprising “stay-cation” can leave another rested and gratified. Anyone who’s ever been stuck in an airport (or on the plane itself) awaiting a long delay with two small, cranky children (been there) knows even the best laid plans can rain down misery. Most of the fatigue and irritability we experience from our vacations, however, stem from our own decisions. We cram too much into one trip. We expect more energy, more cooperation, more good will from our partners, our kids, and ourselves than we reasonably have to give. In other words, we bring the drama on ourselves.
Too often, we plan the vacation we think we’re supposed to want instead of the one we really pine for. Maybe it’s a matter of ditching Disney World for a week in the mountains, a trendy highrise hotel for a quirky B&B in the city, the national parks for the state preserve an hour away. Everyone’s different of course. What floats one person’s boat torpedos another’s. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth dumping the standard media image of the ideal vacation and embracing a personal vision of retreat – whatever that means for you at this time in your life.
As for what that may look like, researchers have identified a few vacation “characteristics” associated with the best recuperation , the most satisfaction, and the longest lasting benefits in study subjects. Subjects’ most satisfying experiences, in their observations, have included having time to oneself, getting exercise and good sleep, making new acquaintances, and enjoying a warm and sunny locale. Sun, sleep, exercise, socialization, and a bit of self-determination. Seems about right, I’d say.
Most crucial, experts contend, is the need to unplug and disconnect on vacation. Research at Tel Aviv University confirms  what common sense tells us: the more complete our detachment from work and other responsibilities while on vacation the more “respite effects” we enjoy. No work, no computer. Some of us even need to put down the iPhone/Android/Palm/etc. and slowly walk away. In other words, the more off the grid, the better. Convenience of bank cards aside, it’s a rare luxury these days to be wholly unreachable, maybe even untraceable (for the fun of it). Anyone who’s purposely disappeared from wired society for any length of time knows what I mean.
Furthermore, as much as we benefit from our vacations, research suggests  most of us feel our sense of “relief” dissipated within a matter of a few days upon return. (In another study , however, those who reported the best, most relaxing vacations enjoyed a longer sense of enhanced happiness for up to eight weeks.) Note to self there. Dutch researcher Jessica De Bloom explains , the “fade-out” of our relaxation doesn’t undercut the importance of vacations themselves: “It would be a bit like asking why should we sleep, despite the fact that we get tired again.” Vacations are adventures into new personal, if not geographic, territory. They’re retreats that refill our emotional stores. The need for respite and enrichment is a well that calls for regular filling.
Of course, there’s a bigger picture here. Numerous virtues aside, vacations aren’t a panacea. You often hear people say they live for their vacations, but I’m not sure that’s a healthy approach either. A couple of weeks, after all, isn’t enough to upend a year’s worth of distress. Remember what I said about sun, sleep, exercise, socialization and bit of self-determination often making for a satisfying vacation experience? That sounds like a life worth crafting instead of just a vacation worth having.
Thanks for stopping by today. Share your thoughts on the importance of vacation. What is your vision of a true retreat? What has been your most relaxing, rejuvenating break?