The Science Behind Relaxing Vacations

 It is surprisingly hard to find good information on how to take relaxing vacations these days. With content marketing spamming the Internet, you might find yourself being temporarily transported to the soothing lushness of Bora Bora, only to discover the article was recommending a specific travel agency. The hidden agenda behind those 10 tips to avoid stress at the airport might be brand awareness for a new luggage line. Of course, readers may be asking the obvious question, “Why do I need advice on how to take relaxing vacations? Isn’t a full pitcher of Mai Tais and an un-maxed credit card enough? The answer is probably, but only to a point. Just as research can provide us with tips on how to be more productive at the office, science can help us play better too.

The Importance of Time Off

First, lets establish the need for time off. We in the US have fewer vacation days than most other countries in the industrialized world. The European Union mandates that workers get at least 20 paid vacation days per year. Some countries like France get even more. Plus additional holidays.  If we are envious, there is good reason.  Overwork has many stress-related negative consequences:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Memory loss
  • Absenteeism
  • Employee burnout and turnover
  • Impaired communication
  • Reduced cognitive functions
  • Increased health care costs

So there you have it. Overwork is bad for everyone’s bottom line. I dream of the day when health insurance companies nag us about working too much just as they do about working out too little. Until that happens, we must be our own leisure police.  Below are some tips from the social sciences on how to make the most of the time off that we do have.

How to Take Relaxing Vacations

Anticipate. The rewards of vacations can come before we ever leave our offices.  Studies have shown that anticipating joyful events can boost our immune systems.

Notice I said anticipate and not necessarily plan. Some people are natural organizers. Six months beforehand, the phone number to the backup plant sitter is already on speed dial.  If you are the type of person that delights in details and revels in mental dress rehearsals, plan away. It is good for you!

Others, however, prefer spontaneity. They may not even know where they are going until two days after they get there. These type of folks can get the full benefits of anticipation by thinking about whatever pleasures await them in a broader sense. Envision sea air, mountaintop views, cash registers ringing, slot machines blinging, a general theme without committing to specifics.

Be a Bit Nostalgic. Jeanette Leardi wrote an interesting piece on  “The Incredible Powers of Nostalgia” to reduce stress and increase optimism. Include something you cherish from past vacations. Maybe you have an old suitcase that saw you through the best times of your life. So it doesn’t have a USB port, 32 micro-compartments or a built-in language translator.  Maybe it doesn’t even have wheels. If it reminds you of happy adventures gone by, bring it along.

For myself, no vacation is complete without sending postcards. Hmm, how to explain postcards to a social media generation.  They are sort of cardboard pre-selfies that do not require makeup, travel irons or decent hair days!

Make It Your Own.  Do what will make you happy. Who cares if all the jet-setters are flocking to the emerging art scene in Abu Dhabi (actual thing this year.) Or ziplining for Botox. (Not a thing yet, but give it time.) Forget about the cool kids. If you would rather toot along old Route 66 to drive by the world’s largest catsup bottle or hit the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana, go for it.  Alternative cool!

Count to Eight. A Fast Company article by Laura Vanderkam entitled “The Scientifically Proven Way to Have The Best Vacation Ever” claims that the regenerative powers of vacations are reached around the eighth day. While longer vacations sound appealing, they may not be any more beneficial from a restorative point of view.

Save The Best for Last. The article above also mentions the recency effect.  As it turns out, the last events we experience tend to stick in our minds better. That is why entertainers always make sure to make those finales so grand! If you are planning something extra special and want it to be a defining part of your vacation, put it near the end.

Schedule a Post Vacation Pick-Me-Up. One more great tip from Laura. Plan something low key but pleasant on your first evening back. Something to look forward to and get you through that dreaded gloom factor of 1000 Mondays return-to-work day.  Perhaps dinner with a friend to share all those pictures with!

Further Reading 

Relaxing vacations from a sociological point of view:  “The Secrets to a Truly Restorative Vacation.”

Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Thanks for posting Sherie! Love the last suggestion of a post-vacation dinner or something else pleasant to look forward to once back in the office. It’s clear that taking time for yourself makes the time in the office that much more worthwhile and productive, and little steps like this can seemingly make all the difference!

Tammy Seleski

Your aside, “Hmm, how to explain postcards to a social media generation. They are sort of cardboard pre-selfies that do not require makeup, travel irons or decent hair days!” cracked me up-thanks for the article and the morning giggle 🙂

Sherie Sanders

Thanks Tammy and Blake! BTW, I don’t practice what I preach. On my last job I did not take a real vacation for 41/2 years!