Without too much effort, it’s easy to imagine the symbolic American man or woman working hard. Some of the most iconic images of our time show farmers getting their hands dirty, or movies depicting one paying their dues and working overtime to please a tyrant boss. Hard work is reflected in our media with countless energy drinks and coffee commercials flooding our television sets, insinuating that our first priority is to stay awake, be active, and keep our noses to the grindstone whenever possible.
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, people living in the United States ages 25 to 54 with children work an average of 44 hours per week. By comparison, Germany’s workers only average 25.6 hours, and France clocked in at 26.8 hours per week. With our 40+ hours per week jobs, and our idea of “vacation” being spent checking work emails and returning calls, Americans are not experts in the art of leisure. That said, being the hard working Americans that we are, is it necessary as humans to take a break from this grind? Without a doubt, experts across the nation agree that taking a vacation is critical to your health and happiness.
The first study is not about vacations, but about boredom. Boredom generally comes from a lack of stimulation. Unfortunately boredom is one of the main side effects of the typical 9 to 5 job. An interesting (if not surprising) study conducted on boredom at the University of Waterloo, found constantly similar results among the people participating. In the article “Decent of the Doldrums” (Scientific American Mind, August 2013) Professor James Danckert and his colleagues administered a questionnaire about boredom with 823 participants in his laboratory. Danckert notes,
“We found that the more bored a volunteer was, the more likely he or she was to express both depressive symptoms and low motivation. Yet boredom did not always co-occur with a lack of motivation, nor was it a always a sign of depression. Despite these overlaps, it seemed to occupy it’s own psychological space.”
Boredom can come from doing something repetitive without much flexibility. Human brains are extremely complex and crave regular stimulation. Boredom (a lack of stimulation), according to Danckert’s studies, is linked to listlessness, bad performance in work and school, issues with attention, and higher rates of abuse with alcohol and other mind-altering substances. Perhaps the most obvious, healthiest cure for boredom would be to escape it and experience something beyond the unexciting routine. This escape submerges the brain into newness and excitement for a period of time.
In spite of our boredom epidemic, America is one of the least likely countries to use their allotted vacation days. The American worker tends to think that they are either indispensable (the office will fall apart without them!) or fear that their bosses will find them lazy or unmotivated if they decide to take time off. With the health risks of not taking a retreat bordering on depression or worse, there are several health benefits of taking that much needed vacation. One benefit of a vacation is gaining a clearer long-term vision of the future. According to Amy Boulanger of Medicaldaily.com,
“For leaders, being away from your work environment for a longer period of time will allow you to gain a fresh perspective on the vision you have for your organization. For employees, summer vacations offer time to reflect on new ways that you can help your team accomplish long-term projects.”
Haven’t we all stared at something so much that it no longer makes sense? Leaving any situation and going somewhere new can stimulate your brain into approaching things with a fresh perspective.
To show what physical effects vacations are meant to have on ones brain, we turn towards something scientists call the “Inverted U”. On a chart showing brain activity (usually depicted in little points that light up around where the brain is being stimulated), the higher the inverted U shape goes, the higher levels of happiness, concentration, and health the person feels. Points falling lower on either side of the U indicate boredom or anxiousness. Vacations greatly help in achieving this centered level of contentment which is key for productivity and happiness. An article by Psychology Today called “Brain Vacations: Stress, Boredom, and Travel” discusses two types of vacations and how they are critical to our health.
Without a doubt, in a forty-hour workweek, a lot of jobs are more often than not stressful and overwhelming. Therefore, the need of a vacation of pure relaxation is usually the answer to balance out the stress and be able to cope with it by calming your mind and body. Additionally, this escape to relaxation would equilibrate the inverted-U shape of the brain (meaning, stimulating the positive, happy points of your brain), causing you to be in a more focused and attentive state of mind. Rather than before when the anxiousness was running high, you would be recharged by relaxation.
Another form of vacation is for ultra-stimulation. Filled with excitement and novelty, this kind of vacation may go by as a blur, but is necessary to stimulate your brain back into focus. Ian H. Robertson Ph. D. of Psychology Today states,
“Novelty is very nourishing to the brain because it stimulates a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine which, in moderate doses, acts like a sort of ‘brain fertilizer’. Curiosity exposes you to novelty, and curious people live longer and healthier lives, research shows. And one way of stimulating curiosity is to vacation with a purpose.”
Instead of wasting away on the beach like most cliché vacation packages, Robertson is suggesting trying something original, something to engage the brain in a scavenger hunt to revitalize dormant thinking patterns. Using ones creative muscles to create an inventive trip is a great tool to reignite ones zest for life.
Long before the vacation even starts, the simple act of planning an event is pivotal to ones happiness. The anticipation of going on a vacation is part of the vacation itself. Anticipation boosts serotonin levels and creates excitement that is reflected in work performance. The New York Times, article called “How Vacations Affect Your Happiness”, talks about how anticipation increases happiness at a much higher rate than when one returns from a trip. Meaning, a person may be more alert, attentive, and relaxed after a vacation, but a great portion of happiness comes from the anticipation of the trip itself. The research continues, citing that there was little to no difference in happiness levels when measured against the length of the entire trip. In fact, Jeroen Nawijn, tourism research lecturer at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands suggests that,
“The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip. What you can do is try to increase that by taking more trips per year. If you have a two week holiday you can split it up and have two one week holidays. You could try to increase the anticipation effect by talking about it more and maybe discussing it online.”
Having tiny, calculated getaways sprinkled throughout the year could give your brain a bigger boost than taking one large vacation. Pushing yourself to engage with others along with some creative planning could stimulate these longer lasting happiness effects before actually embarking on your journey.
All of these vacation studies center around one thing: balance. Without balance in a person’s life, the long work hours create personal anguish that can come out as boredom, apathy, or anxiousness. Likewise, too much pursuit of pleasure and laziness creates boredom and numbness. A little hard work can greatly help in recovering purpose in a ones life. A vacation is meant for escaping the daily humdrum and immersing yourself into new experiences. Using a vacation as a tool, we are able to gain worldliness, self-awareness, and understanding about our surroundings. With a break, we become inspired visionaries, able to solve previously unsolvable tasks, all while enjoying ourselves in our ideal travel locations. Without a break, you would only know your immediate co-workers and routine, and would not be able to witness what makes human beings and natural wonders so extraordinary. Beyond the scientists telling us about the importance of “Inverted-U’s” that a person is supposed to maintain, human beings instinctively know what to do and where to go to fulfill themselves. It’s time to not just look at the scenery our calendar pages possess, but to make a date for our own adventure to embark on.
(To read Boulangers five reasons why you should go on a vacation, visit http://www.medicaldaily.com/health-benefits-vacation-5-reasons-go-away-summer-246530)
(Read the of the brain tests on happiness at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-winner-effect/201301/brain-vacations-stress-boredom-and-travel)