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The Science of How to Enjoy Your Vacation

Learn how to plan and take a vacation that's good for your mind, body and soul.

Key points

  • Enjoy Your vacation. Viewing vacation as a waste of time undermines enjoyment and robs you of its benefits.
  • Ensure that your vacation serves as a true break from your day-to-day life.
  • Be intentional about the type of vacation that serves you best.

After an incredibly trying year, we all need a break. An ongoing pandemic, economic disruption, and global unrest have converged to inflame burnout and accelerate a mental health crisis among students and workers.

    Thankfully, summer vacation is coming and not a minute too soon.

    Unfortunately, taking and enjoying a vacation is easier said than done. The U.S. offers the least paid time off among industrialized countries, and more than half of workers do not use all their allotted vacation time. What’s more, 80 percent of American workers agree that taking a vacation is important but they never actually take their vacation.

    Skipping vacations is a mistake. They’re essential for our minds, bodies, and souls. Below are three evidence-based tips to ensure that you have a meaningful and restorative vacation, no matter your budget or time.

    Recognize the Value of a Vacation

    Why is it so hard for people to take vacations? Because, in a work-obsessed culture, it can be seen as a waste of time. In fact, one in five workers doesn't take vacations because of "work guilt."

    Unfortunately, this belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Viewing vacation as a waste of time undermines your ability to enjoy it.

    Research shows that vacations are anything but a waste of time. They improve both mental and physical health, they boost job performance and creativity. They even strengthen social relationships. Ultimately, people who vacation tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives.

    To enjoy these benefits, vacations don’t need to be extended or expensive. Three studies have shown that people who treat the weekend like a vacation were happier, more present, and satisfied when returning to work on Monday.

    Take a True “Break” From Your Life

    Vacations are beneficial because they provide a meaningful break from our day-to-day lives. Research shows that meaningful breaks can increase engagement and enjoyment in all sorts of ways. Absence makes the heart grow fonder: taking a break from the things you love, be it television or chocolate, makes us enjoy those activities more. Vacations are a powerful way to shake up our daily routines and hit the reset button.

    Vacations also help us recover and recharge. Just as marathon runners take recovery days to rest their bodies, we also need to recharge from the physical and psychological toll we endure daily.

    To design a vacation that really hits the mark, ask yourself:

    • What is it that I most need a break from?
    • Do you need a break from boredom, tedium, and monotony in your daily work or family rhythm?
      Then plan a vacation that prioritizes novelty, excitement, and adventure.
    • Do you need a break from pressure, stress, and anxiety due to the intensity of your job or home life?
      Then plan a vacation that prioritizes rest, recovery, and relaxation.

    Choose the Vacation Best For You

    A good vacation is one that makes us happy. But what makes us happy is different for everyone. Research has shown that some people derive happiness from meaningful experiences, ones that get you thinking about life. Others derive happiness from pleasurable experiences, ones that get you feeling good in the moment.

    Which do you gravitate to?

    If you are unsure, do a heart check by asking yourself: What’s more important on a vacation—high peaks or no valleys?

    “High peak” vacations are marked by seminal experiences you’ll always remember. These vacations enrich your life in some way. Sometimes it’s by discovering new things about yourself and the world or making your life and the world around you better. If you’re someone who seeks moving or memorable experiences, plan a high-peak vacation. Consider traveling for a cause, spending time with locals, supporting local business, visiting a wildlife conservation, or taking a retreat or cooking class.

    “No valley” vacations are about taking it slow, keeping it casual, low hassle, and full of pleasure. While no valley vacations lack the seminal experiences of a high valley vacation, there are no “low” moments, which maximizes relaxation. Do you love the idea of keeping it light, just having fun and being pampered, even if there’s little change from one day to the next? Consider going someplace or doing something (or nothing) to create more ease in your life, declutter your overworked mind, escape the rigors of life, and play.

    Interestingly, research reveals some gender differences in preference. Women tend to gravitate toward meaningful experiences (high peaks), while men prefer pleasurable ones (no valleys). Yet, everyone needs both experiences, and the balance shifts across seasons of life.

    No matter what we do or where we go, when we’re intentional about designing vacations and breaks to meet felt needs, we gain more benefit and more enjoyment from our vacations and from our lives.

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