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How To Take a Great Vacation...According to Science

Ever since my meandering career path took me far from my home state, I have been splitting my yearly vacation time between visits to my family back in Michigan and doing things I wanted to do. Fifteen years ago, I married a man whose network of family and career paths touch every continent on the planet. We further split our vacation time between visits to our ‘local’ and most immediate family in North America with visits to family and friends spread over the globe and, rarely, just doing things we want to do. Truthfully, many of our trips have been hybrids. When you have family-in-law in Paris, London, and Tel Aviv… isn’t that where you want to vacation anyway? Stopover in Croatia for a 3-day meeting? Why not?

Photo Credit: vantagefit

Due to the pandemic, we were out of vacation practice and, truthfully, a bit unsure what would be safe or possible. We knew we needed to get out of the house, and I began to wonder… What is a great vacation, anyway? As a professor whose area of expertise is ‘Work-Life Balance’, I knew the answer could be found… somewhere in a textbook! So... what does science say about how to take a great vacation and if it’s even worth it.

Overall research has shown that there are health benefits related to vacationing. Researchers call this the ‘vacation effect’. People experience relief from stress, burnout, and fatigue, and report better health and well-being after vacationing. Studies have also shown relationship benefits, such as improved communication among family members traveling together and a strengthening of family bonds. This vacation effect holds true even for a short vacations. Key take away: Go on vacation.


Vacation Check List

· Fully detach from work and life pressures

· Active is better than passive (mentally, creatively or physically)

· Get social

· Plan for restoration (and avoid depletion)


But what you do matters too. It seems active activities are better than passive ones when it comes to achieving the vacation effect. Whether it’s keeping your mind active (reading an exciting spy novel), your hands busy (having a go at clay sculpting), or moving your body (heading to the slopes or lakes for skiing), you’ll fair better than you would have by passively chilling out in front of the television the whole time. One reason is that being actively engaged in enjoyable activities allows you to be fully disengaged from the routines and pressures of your usual work and home life. Psychological detachment from work is the key ingredient of recuperation and recovery from work. Of course, this only holds true if you’re doing activities you enjoy. For me, I felt edgy during and exhausted after our ‘successful’ trip to Disneyland a few years ago, but I’m super excited about the prospect of fully enjoying a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios someday (because I’m into wizards but not so much princesses).

Photo Credit:Wall Street Journal

The ‘vacation effect’ is quickly followed by the “fade-out effect”. The well-being benefits of vacationing begin to fade just a few days after the vacation has ended, and all the benefits are gone within a week to a month after the vacation. I’m interpreting that to mean that we all need to go on vacation much more often. Beyond vacationing, taking frequent, fully-detached breaks (i.e. not working evenings and weekends) and even micro-breaks (e.g., stepping out for a brief, brisk walk during the work day) can help keep the good going. Lastly, in the big picture, if your job is all overwhelming demands and stress, but in reality, gives you nothing back in return except a paycheck, it might be worth finding one that you have to spend less time recovering from and more time enjoying. Key take away: Recharge often, enjoy life.

This all got me thinking… Do scientists who study vacationing take great vacations? Maybe. Maybe not. The truth is, I don’t know. But I think we can all use a vacation right about now and why not make it a great one.


Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is an Associate Director in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!


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