This time it didn’t take much to slip into vacation mode. Sometimes, you know, on those first couple of days away, your body and brain are antsy, as though you’ll have to spring back into action at any moment to clean up that to-do list you left at home.
But at an airport out west last week, a friendly car rental agent offered a cut-rate upgrade, and within minutes I was truly on vacation, the sensible sedan I had reserved left behind as I sped away in a hot red convertible.
Into the golden evening I rolled, then, my hair whipped by mountain air, my shoulders settled, my breathing deep. May I urge you to embrace your own version of this abandon?
We Americans are dubious of vacations. By some measures, in fact, we’re the most overworked country in the industrialized world: Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 266 more hours than British workers and 499 more hours than the French, according to the International Labor Organization. The U.S. is the only wealthy country that has no legally mandated annual leave.
Count me among the lucky folks who get plenty of paid vacation, and also among the agitated crowd of people who often reach the end of the year with days off left in the bank, only to vanish at the stroke of the New Year. Pretty dumb, right?
But there are a lot of us. A survey last year found that the average U.S. employee only takes half of his or her eligible vacation time. And a lot of folks don’t want more time off. Check this survey question: What if you could cut your work day by one hour per day and take a corresponding pay cut? Fully 85 percent said no; half said they couldn’t afford it, but 35 percent said they’re just not interested.
Think about that for a moment. (Actually, you may only have time to think about it if you’re on vacation, since contemplation is one of the activities we tend to squeeze out of our schedules when we’re at work.)
Consider first the health benefits of time off. The landmark Framingham Heart Study, the largest and longest-running research into cardiovascular disease, found that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks than men who did take time off; women who took vacation only every six years or less were almost eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than women who vacationed twice a year.
This isn’t just an issue of physical health, either. A study of 1,500 women in rural Wisconsin found that those who vacationed were less likely to suffer from depression and increased stress.
Besides, time off makes workers more productive when they return. I could cite here the studies backing that notion, too, but you get the idea: There are lots of upsides to downtime.
So why do we ignore this research? More personally, here’s what struck me as I stood atop a granite spire in the Black Hills of South Dakota, awestruck by the expanse of mountains across scores of miles on a crystal-clear day: What took me so long to get back to this spot, which I knew I loved? Why wouldn’t anyone quickly grasp such an opportunity to get away to beauty?
For some people, of course, taking time off is expensive. And if you make more money, you can buy stuff you like, some of it contributing to the so-called good life: a backyard grill, say, or a boat.
But studies show that for most of us, once we have enough money to meet our basic needs, more money doesn’t buy us more happiness. In fact, it often increases stress levels.
Instead, a relentless focus on work has become for many of us an end in itself. We take pride in how hard we work and derive self-esteem from the notion of our value to the organization that employs us. We feel ill at ease if we loosen our grip on that at all. About three in five of the Americans who do take vacations work while they’re taking time ”off,” a habit made easier by the ubiquity of digital contact.
If this is the behavior of grown-ups, imagine what it tells our kids, who are all too eager to bury themselves in digital devices. They are unlikely, then, to ever know the joy expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great philosopher whose ventures into our Adirondack mountains in the 19th century yielded such observations as this:
”In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, – he is my creature, and (despite) all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.”
And so I escaped for a week into the rugged American West, finding that delight Emerson described as I climbed forested mountains and splashed through creeks washing down rocky gulches. I counted my blessings under the summer sun, and determined to share my hope that this sort of joy might be yours in this season, too.
Take the time.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union.