Well-Being//

How to Stop Wasting Your Vacation

The science of finding happiness and restoration when getting away.

Photo Courtesy of Simon Matzinger, Unsplash

My husband (and fellow happiness researcher) Shawn Achor and I have taken the exact same vacation together each summer for the past five years, but this is the first time we didn’t mess it up.

On the surface, the trips have been the same year to year: two weeks in Martha’s Vineyard. Always in July. Lots of blueberry pie and swimming in the pond. Strolls down Main Street. Playing with our young son in the backyard of our rental home. Easy formula. Rinse and repeat.

The problem was that since we are both very success driven, our work became the invisible companion on our vacation. Whether we were writing our latest book or sitting in the backyard working on scripts for our PBS program (that was last summer), work seemed to always creep into our time off.

What we came to understand is that we were trying to achieve happiness by attempting to take two competing paths to it at the same time: taking a restorative vacation while still working to achieve our professional goals. It’s an all-too-common trap we regularly see our clients getting caught in. They set up an OOO message that says they have limited access to email, and moments after receiving that autoresponder, we get an actual email they drafted poolside!

There is a pervasive societal belief that says to be successful we must stay plugged in and on top of tasks, but our research shows doing this after hours and during vacations hampers long-term success. We are never giving our brains a chance to recharge. And sometimes we might believe we are leaving work at the office, but if we clock out, come home and spend three hours stewing about our boss or latest project, that can be just as bad. Recharging comes when we rest our mind by sleeping or getting it to focus on something that brings us joy.

In a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, we discussed compelling research on how resilience is not how we endure but how we strategically recharge. Instead of cheering our children for regularly studying into the wee hours of the morning, it would be better to praise them for getting a good night’s sleep to recover and then better managing their daytime hours. Same goes for us. But knowing and doing are two different things.

Case point: Vacation is on the decline. We teamed up with the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off to study the effects of overwork on our success rates and well-being. In the study, more than 5,600 adult American workers averaging a minimum of 35 hours a week were asked a series of questions designed to understand their perception of time off and the impacts on various business or health measures. All workers received paid time off as part of their benefits package. After combining the data with a set from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, our study found that in 2000, the average worker took 20.3 days as compared to 16.2 in 2015. Over the past decade and a half Americans have lost nearly a week of vacation!

Meanwhile it is those very vacation days that fuel our success. Our study also found that if you take 11 or more of your vacation days, you are more than 30 percent more likely to receive a raise. Specifically, workers who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6 percent likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period. Those who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4 percent chance of receiving a raise or bonus. After reading this information, is your next visit online to a travel website?

Physically getting away is the first step, but it also takes mental attention to unplug. Knowing some of the ingredients to a restorative vacation including planning 30 days in advance and going somewhere you feel comfortable, this year Shawn and I spent extra time preparing to take time away. We mapped out our favorite activities we wanted to do this year. When we shipped a box of toys for our 3-year-old to our vacation home, we threw in some things for us including a Spanish language book (we’ve wanted to learn forever) and a beaded bracelet making kit for me (yes, this thing was made for teens but hey it’s something I never make time for!).

Additionally, we did a lot of work-related preparations. We wrapped up projects and told our partners we’d be offline. We decided absolutely no work talk. None. And we went 5 days at a time without checking email. (That one was really hard for me because it is a habit—aka addiction.) I also put up this away message, which got a great reaction from several people and kept me honest.

Hello!

Our most recent study found that vacations are good for the brain and can increase performance at work. This calls for further research! I’ll be out of the office with limited access to email until July 17. If you need immediate assistance, please contact [my colleague.]

Happy Summer!

Michelle

After you put up that kind of away message you can’t immediately respond.

And now that we’re home, we’re trying to be conscious of the fact that our happiness comes from balancing work and recovery. We’ve imported some of these positive habits to life at home. No work talk or checking email after 5 p.m. And weekends are sacred. I can say we’re practicing these habits. Just like yoga or meditation, you can practice for a lifetime.

As far as our vacation this year, it was the best yet… by far! Being present with our son as he dug in the sand or laughed on the carousel ride (not to mention indulging in lots of blueberry pies) filled us with positive memories that will last us the next 50 weeks until we get to go back.

How do you intentionally recharge on vacation? What stops us from shutting off from work? What do you notice about your energy levels or work performance after a rejuvenating vacation? We’d love to hear! And join us on social for more on the science of happiness and success at Facebook.com/MichelleGielan and Facebook.com/ShawnAchor

Michelle Gielan, national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, is the best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness. Michelle is the Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

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