The cruel thing about vacations is that they are pleasurable but finite. I recently had time to contemplate this unwelcome fact during a 10-hour flight home from a Greek island where I had spent a paradisiacal two weeks. I found myself wondering about the relationship between the duration of a vacation and the longevity of its mental health benefits.
Is a large amount of time off the secret to bringing your vacation home with you?
We Americans have been preoccupied with the length of our vacations for some time. William Howard Taft, our 27th president, opined on the subject in 1910 in an interview with The New York Times. He claimed that “two to three months’ vacation are necessary” for someone “to work the next year with the energy and effectiveness it ought to have.”
Two to three months? For most of us, that is not a possibility.
Not to worry, I have good news: Vacation research — yes, there is such a thing — shows that beyond a week or two away from work, more time off isn’t going to make you happier or calmer or produce more lasting gains of another sort.
For example, in a 2012 study in the Netherlands, in which the duration of the participants’ vacations ranged from 14 to 35 days, researchers found that subjective measures of health and wellness shot up rapidly at the start of the break and then peaked by Day 8. Sadly, these positive vacation effects evaporated after just one day back at work.
I know this finding runs counter to the popular notion that you can’t sufficiently recover from work stress or burnout without a long and leisurely break. But in fact several other studies have also failed to find a measurable psychological benefit to vacations that stretched beyond two weeks.
Curiously, the Dutch researchers also found that those who couldn’t resist the urge to do a little work while on vacation were no less likely to reap the benefits than those who avoided all work. So no need to banish your phones entirely. Perhaps the key to enjoyment on vacation is the ability to control what you do, and to do what is most natural to you. Workaholics might find “enforced” relaxation stressful. By all means let them work a little on vacation!
At first glance, such research seems to support the idea that the best way to maximise the benefits of your vacation is to take shorter and more frequent breaks. Perhaps. But my personal and clinical experiences suggest that there might be something more to the effective vacation than just the proper length: namely, the importance of unexpected, immersive experiences.
Consider a former patient of mine, a hard-driving guy in finance who rarely, if ever, took time off and who finally agreed to a vacation at the urging — or more accurately, the threats — of his wife. Reluctantly, off he went with his wife to Tuscany.
Two weeks later, he returned to my office looking unusually relaxed. He related the following incident: He’d been driving in a little village when his car stalled out at a train crossing. Panicked, he and his wife got out and prepared for the worst, when a local farmer came by and offered to tow the car to safety. The farmer also insisted on taking them to his house for lunch, which turned into an all-day affair.
At first, the experience disconcerted my patient, who had carefully planned his vacation to the minute. But in the end he could not have been more delighted by this unexpected encounter. In fact, he referred to it repeatedly in his therapy after that.
My patient had no pictures or videos to show me, just a sharp and indelible memory that he carried with him. And that I suspect is key to a great and long-lasting vacation: He allowed himself to be open to the unforeseen and immersed in his experience.
In contrast, I think back to all the people I observed on my recent vacation armed with smartphones and cameras, diligently documenting the beauty around them. It made me wonder whether in the attempt to record and preserve our pleasure, we become observers of our experience rather than full participants in it.
Looking at the hundreds of pictures I took drove this possibility home. There were scores of perfect sunsets, shots of the glittering sea — all beautiful to look at, but largely incapable of arousing in me the feeling of being there. I was probably too busy capturing the moment to be part of it.
I do have one unglamorous, poorly framed shot of a dish of grilled octopus at a simple seaside taverna where I spent an unplanned afternoon talking with the charming owner. Whether or not I look at that image, when I think of that lunch, the pleasure of the afternoon comes rushing back.
That, I believe, is the way to bring your vacation home — not as a collection of recorded moments but as a few vivid experiences you allow to take you by surprise.
— New York Times News Service
Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a contributing opinion writer.