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The Importance of Vacations to Our Physical and Mental Health

Why Presidents (and all of us) need vacations.

Among the many debates swirling through the nation's circle of pundits each year is whether nation's leaders should take time off in the summer for their yearly recess. As it turns out, though it may seem that they're being irresponsible, perhaps they're doing the right thing. Everyone needs a vacation once in a while.

Though the average citizen may not experience the kind of mega-stress of a nationally elected leader, all of us have our own home-grown version of job-related stress. We may face the burden of meeting tight deadlines, making crucial decisions, or managing the complexities of household demands. Our stress may also include the stress of being under- or unemployed. All adults have lives that are filled with some form of stress, even if we don't truly acknowledge this fact.

Chronic stress takes its toll in part on our body's ability to resist infection, maintain vital functions, and even ability to avoid injury. When you're stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you're more likely to have an accident. Your sleep will suffer, you won't digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way. Mentally, not only do you become more irritable, depressed, and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you'll make poorer decisions. You'll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely, and depressed.

Clearly, then, stress is not a good thing. Even people who claim to love the high-pressured lifestyle will admit, in their quieter moments, that there are times when they just want to get away from it all, if only for a short time.

Vacations have the potential to break into the stress cycle. We emerge from a successful vacation feeling ready to take on the world again. We gain perspective on our problems, get to relax with our families and friends, and get a break from our usual routines. That's if the vacation is "successful." Later, I'll talk about ways to guarantee that you do have a successful vacation experience rather than one that could be chronicled as a "National Lampoon" movie. For now, though, let's look at some of that evidence.

In a 2009 study, Canadian researchers Joudrey and Wallace reported that "active" leisure pursuits (such as golf!) and taking vacations helped to buffer or ameliorate the job stress among a sample of almost 900 lawyers. British researcher Scott McCabe noted that vacations' "personal benefits have been found to include: rest and recuperation from work; provision of new experiences leading to a broadening of horizons and the opportunity for learning and intercultural communication; promotion of peace and understanding; personal and social development; visiting friends and relatives; religious pilgrimage and health; and, subjective wellbeing" (p. 667). McCabe believes these positive benefits to be so strong that he recommends that families be given some form of financial assistance if they are unable to afford vacations on their own.

The benefits of vacations extend to family relationships. An international group of researchers led by Purdue University Xinran Lehto concluded that family vacations contribute positively to family bonding, communication and solidarity. Vacations promote what is called the "crescive bond" (in sociological parlance, a "shared experience") by fostering growing and enduring connections. Shared family memories and time spent together isolated from ordinary everyday activities (school, work, and so on) help to promote these positive ties. Though family vacations can have their own share of stress, the benefits outweigh the risks, even in families that are not particularly close, according to Lehto and co-authors.

Ready to hop off Psych Today and hop on to Expedia to book your next vacation? Of course it might not be so easy. Until the word gets out and the government or private charities start issuing vacation stimulus packages, you may not be in a position to fly up, up, and away. There are also many ways to benefit from a "stay-cation" (where you don't venture further than your state, town or city, or even neighborhood). But for now, if you're able to and ready, here are some ways to make sure that you actually benefit from every penny spent on that hard-earned adventure:

1. "Plan ahead" (put in quotes because you've certainly heard this one before!): Do your online research and make sure you know what's available in your vacation destination. It's frustrating to find out too late that if you had just done a bit of googling you'd have found the ideal beach, mountain, museum, park, etc. etc. Planning ahead will also minimize family stress while on that vacation especially if you've pre-agreed on an itinerary. This will also make it possible for you to determine ahead of time whether some or all of you want to go bungee jumping vs. museum-hopping.

2. Know the rules and regulations: Airlines are notoriously pulling bait-and-switch tactics in which they advertise one set of fares and then jack the prices up with ludicrous fees. Spirit Airlines most recently caught fire for their decision to charge for carry-on luggage. There are some good websites out there with advice on how to avoid some of these charges. Know your country's safety rules and regulations as well. If you don't want to give up your cherished Swiss Army knife, for example, you'll need to remember to pack it in checked bags or leave it at home altogether.

3. Don't feel guilty because you're going on vacation. You can afford a vacation but your neighbor, co-worker, or best friend can't. The point of a vacation is to rid yourself from as much guilt as possible. If you are so distressed about taking a trip, maybe there's something else holding you back. Alternatively, you can decide to donate some of your budget originally intended for travel to a charitable cause. And don't feel that you shouldn't send a card or bring back a gift for someone who couldn't take a vacation because you don't want to rub it in. If the person resents your card or gift, well, let's just say that this person may not be someone you should worry about anyway! (just kidding).

4. Don't feel guilty when you're gone if you check email. Some people feel that the worst part of a vacation is coming back to hundreds or thousands of emails. If you're one of those people (and you know who you are), then allot yourself a small portion of each day to a stop in an internet cafe or a peek at your laptop. In fact, there's a case to be made that you need to do some email checking just to make sure that family members at home are okay, nothing horrible has happened to your household pets, your charge accounts are still solvent, and your flight hasn't been delayed.

5. Make your vacation a true adventure. As shown by the research, an active vacation involving new challenges will be most beneficial. Sure, you can veg out on the beach for hours at a time if that's going to relax you the most. But be sure that you stray outside of the resort, hotel, cruise ship, or wherever you are in that comfort zone of yours and get off the beaten track a bit. It will build some new synapses and give you some of those memorable, bonding, experiences with your fellow vacationers.

6. More practical advice (skip this if you've heard it way too many times before). Pack for contingencies such as getting sick, getting a sunburn (which you should not get if you've followed my advice in earlier posts about sunblock!), losing your glasses, getting a paper cut, and so forth. Pack far enough in advance so you don't forget your favorite teddy bear or whatever else will give you comfort. Zip up your bags, don't carry too much cash, xerox your passport if you're going out of the country, check the drawers in your hotel room before you leave, don't go in sketchy areas alone or without prior advice - you don't want the adventure to turn sour. Leave enough extra room in your case for souvenirs, and buy them. You may never realize until later how much you regretted not spending one or two dollars for the trinket that at the time seemed silly but in retrospect would have looked oh so cute on your kitchen table.

Take plenty of pictures. The days of carrying 20 rolls of film for a 2-week trip are fortunately behind us. The "deletes" don't cost anything anymore. Finally -- read this one-- make sure you know what the plug styles are in countries other than your own. The camera, laptop, or cellphone that's run out of juice won't be any good to you unless you thought ahead to bring the right converter. Don't forget the cords, and don't leave them plugged in when you depart from your hotel room.

Combine souvenir shopping with camera tricks

Alright, that should take care of the do's and don't's for a successful vacation. But there are plenty of advantages to stay-cations. You can make your time at home so good that people who had to put up with the woes of travel will end up being jealous of you!

Vacations are just one route to fulfillment. To learn more about ways to achieve your own self-fulfillment, check out my Search for Fulfillment website. There you can read excerpts from my book and take online quizzes so that you can find the action plan that will be most helpful to your pathway to fulfillment. Check out the Interactive Resources for these and other features.

Bon Voyage!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Joudrey, A.D. & Wallace, J.E. (2009). Leisure as a coping resource: A test of the job demand-control-support model. Human Relations, 62, 195-217.

Lehto, X. Y., Choi, S., Lin, Y., & MacDermid, S.M. (2009). Vacation and family functioning. Annals of Tourism Research, 36, 459-479.

McCabe, S. (2009). Who needs a holiday? Evaluating social tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 36, 667-688.

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