Americans generally believe that they need to “deserve” their vacations—that they should work hard, even push themselves, before they actually take a break.
In researching my book, The Happiness Track, I came across these startling statistics:
- Although Americans have fewer vacation days than people in any other country, they have been taking less and less vacation over the last 15 years.
- Fifty-five percent of Americans did not use all their vacation days in 2015.
- Even when they actually do take vacation, 41 percent are checking into work while away (i.e., they are not fully unplugging).
- 84 percent of U.S. executives have cancelled vacations in order to work.
There may be cultural reasons for this phenomenon. Countries most influenced by the Protestant work ethic, like the United States, place a lot of value on industriousness and proving oneself—as opposed to countries influenced by Catholicism, which is a salvation-based religion. In Catholic-influenced France, for example, 90 percent of people take all of their vacation days (despite having more than twice as many—30!—as most Americans).
Ironically, while Americans may pride themselves on their hard work and dedication, research suggests that we will actually work harder, perform better, and have greater health, stamina, and enthusiasm for our work if we take time off.
Three ways vacation is good for you
Research suggests that leisure is an important predictor of our well-being and satisfaction with life, including our health, work engagement, creativity, and even marital satisfaction.
1. Vacation is relaxing. We often take vacations in order to relax, but do they actually work? Scientists out of the University of California, San Francisco, examined this question with a rigorous study: They looked at the impact of a resort vacation and a meditation retreat on biological measures of stress and immune function. The data showed that a resort vacation not only makes us feel more energetic and less stressed than we were before we took the vacation, it also leads to a strong and immediate impact on molecular networks associated with stress and immune function. Participants who attended the meditation retreat also showed a boost in antiviral activity.
So pick your favorite leisure activity: surfing in the sun and hanging under the cabana, or sitting on a zafu and taking yoga.
2. Breaks make you more productive. Another personal and professional advantage of taking vacations is the ability to detach from work.
Sabine Sonnentag, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Mannheim in Germany, finds that the inability to detach from work comes with symptoms of burnout, which of course impact well-being and productivity. However, disengaging from work when you are not at work, she finds, makes us more resilient in the face of stress and more productive and engaged at work. Even a short weekend getaway can provide significant work-stress recovery, while longer trips away provide even more relief.
After a vacation, 64 percent of people say that they are ”refreshed and excited to get back to my job.” It’s a win-win both for employees and organizations alike, especially given the fact that unused vacation costs U.S. business $224 billion per year.
3. A change of pace boosts creativity. Another professional advantage from taking time off is a boost in creativity. Across countries and industries, CEOs rate creativity as the #1 most important trait for all incoming employees. Yet researcher Kyung Hee Kim, author of The Creativity Challenge, has shown that we are facing a dramatic “creativity crisis,” with creativity scores dropping significantly in younger generations. Here again, more vacations and leisure may help.
Many workers tend to specialize in their own field, and fail to explore new areas or diversify their interests. Yet research shows that being exposed to new and different experiences actually boosts your creativity. For example, one study showed that hiking in nature disconnected from all devices for four days—a very unusual experience in our day and age—led to a 50 percent spike in creativity.
Brain imaging studies show that doing nothing, being idle, daydreaming, and relaxingcreate alpha waves in the brain that are key to creative insights and innovative breakthroughs. And research by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, has shown that positive emotions—the kind we feel on a relaxing, playful vacation—make us more inventive and able to think outside the box.
How to make the most of your vacation
When planning your time off, keep in mind that all leisure activities are not created equal. A German study comparing different leisure activities showed that while spending time with friends, doing sports, and vacationing boost your well-being substantially, other leisure activities including Internet browsing and TV watching do not; in fact, they lead to lower satisfaction with life. That means that your couch isn’t necessarily the best vacation destination.
Depending on your age and gender, research by Iva Sverko and colleagues has shown, different leisure activities may lead to greater well-being—but for people of all ages, leisure activities like visiting friends and family and going to church are positively linked to well-being. Later in life, for example, social activities seem to be particularly important. This finding makes sense since a large and growing body of research shows that the degree to which we are socially connected across our lifespan significantly improves our physical and psychological health, and even our longevity.
When should you schedule your time away from work? Some of us are so good at delayed gratification that we’re constantly putting off our vacations, thinking we’ll enjoy our “well-deserved” leisure more later—after we write that report, finish that big project, or get a promotion. But this is not necessarily true: A new study shows that fun times are fun times no matter what, and we enjoy them just as much whether they come before or after hard work. Also, the professional and personal benefits that we get from leisure time may help us succeed at our work goals.
So plan your vacation now. Better yet, don’t get caught up in too much planning. Another recent study suggests that spontaneous leisure activities are more rewarding than planned ones. So let your hair down, play hooky, and let loose once in a while. There’s still some summer left, so enjoy!
Find out more about why your happiness and time off actually makes you more (rather than less) productive in The Happiness Track.
A version of this article originally appeared on Greater Good Science Center