A Vacation from Vacation

Picture taken from www.phdcomics.comEveryone loves a vacation. And, equally, everyone dreads that feeling of pulling in the driveway with a car full of dirty laundry and whining kids, facing the Herculean tasks of an overgrown lawn, empty fridge, dirty house, and overflowing work voicemail and/or email inbox. This is all so stressful, in fact, that it seems that the benefits of a vacation quickly dissipate…far sooner than the work time taken to actually accrue those holiday hours. Having recently returned from such a trip myself, I wondered: how long do the benefits of vacation remain? Does the stress of returning outweigh the relaxation of going?

First, the good news. A vacation as short as 4-5 days improves health and well-being. Physical complaints, quality of sleep, and mood are also beneficially influenced by vacation time. Moreover, many factors moderate the balance between the recuperating vs. exhausting effects of vacation. For example, a study of almost 200 employees found that the recuperative benefits of a vacation are enhanced by vacations that take place in warmer and sunnier locations, include exercise and good sleep, and involve making new acquaintances. A similar study confirmed that  improvements in health and well-being during vacation are augmented by participation in active (rather than passive) pursuits. By contrast, vacation-related exhaustion is exacerbated by travel to from different time zones as well as health-related illness incurred during the vacation.

The bad news? The effects of vacation are short-lived. Most studies indicate that employees return to pre-vacation stress levels within  4 weeks of returning to work, and improvements in health and well-being associated with vacation dissipate even more quickly (in 3-10 days). Similarly, a recent meta-analysis concluded that while vacations have small but positive effects on health and well-being, these improvements fade out quickly after employees return to work.  Moreover, almost 25% of  vacationers report that vacation has either negative or no improvement on health and well-being.

All of this research would seem to suggest that taking several short vacations confers a greater health benefit than one long vacation, but psychologists disagree as to whether this approach is effective. For example, while repeated short vacations may improve benefits by reducing “vacation acclimation,” a greater number of planned trips may simply increase the number of exposures to the stress of packing and unpacking without any additional recuperative benefits.

Like many other health-related relationships, it seems the effect of vacation on stress is not entirely straightforward and uniform.  I’m thus reminded of the poem The Vacation by Wendell Berry: perhaps the most important aspect of a vacation is not what we get out of it, or how long it lasts, but simply to just be in it.


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