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When was the last time you took a vacation? Vacation time, despite what you might think, is not a frivolous pursuit. It can help families bond and improve people’s frame of mind. It can even help workers be more productive and come up with new ideas.
But many Americans seem hesitant to take vacations. A 2012 Harris interactive poll found that employees left an average of 9.2 vacation days on the table. And, what’s more, there’s confusion around the ideal vacation length—a string of headlines has recently touted that the ideal vacation should last eight days, though the researcher whose work was cited, Jessica de Bloom, would like to further clarify her findings.
Her study examined 54 people who took 23-day vacations—a uniquely European luxury. But de Bloom and her colleagues didn’t look at every single day.
“If you look at my research, you can see the pattern, there was the highest level of wellbeing on the eighth day,” de Bloom said. “But we have only measured four times during the holiday, so we actually don’t know. You’d need to measure every single day.”
Regardless of how long a vacation lasts, research shows you shouldn’t skimp on taking time off.
If de Bloom and her colleagues had measured the tenth day, or the twelfth day, for example, they might have found even higher levels of happiness. The study, furthermore, focused on three-week vacations. For vacations with shorter or longer durations, de Bloom said, it quite likely wouldn’t be the eighth day at all.
While there might not be an ideal vacation length, researchers have detected a happiness pattern to which time-off adheres. Happiness levels peak at the midway point of a vacation. And that’s regardless of whether the vacation is three weeks or four days.
“People need some time to come down, to relax from a busy working period because that’s the time when people are more stressed than usual just before the holiday,” de Bloom said.
And then, toward the end of the vacation, levels of well-being take a bit of a nose-dive. People begin to prepare for unopened emails waiting in their inbox, the alarm clock once again jolting them out of bed, and other trappings of the modern workday experience.
Regardless of how long a vacation might last, research has shown that you shouldn’t skimp on taking time off. Studies show that not taking vacations is correlated with enhanced risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, and even premature death.
It can also affect mental health. Across the world, people are plagued by ever higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Vacation time, studies show, can be great medicine for that. Time off can help reduce our levels of anxiety and offer a break from everyday stresses.
“One of the conclusions from my research is that you should regularly plan time-out,” de Bloom said.
Meanwhile, researchers say there’s one thing that stands out when trying to plan a vacation that feels refreshing and rewarding: feeling a sense of control.
“Control over your own time is very important,” said Scott McCabe, a professor at the Nottingham University Business School who researches tourism and vacation.
Most people don’t have much say as to when they awake, clock in at work, or what they work on throughout the day. Vacations can help buoy our sense of autonomy, and De Bloom echoes this point.
“It’s important that people feel that they are in control and that they can decide what kind of activities they want to engage in,” de Bloom said.
Besides returning feeling refreshed, a change in scenery and routine can do wonders for creativity.
That could mean a deep-water dive among hammerhead sharks for some people, or a nine-hour hike to a snowy peak in the Rocky Mountains for others. Or, it could mean lying in the grass in the local park soaking up a romance novel. It’s completely subjective.
Vacations are also important for family bonding, McCabe said. In the modern world, families have so little time to spend together, so vacation times become more important than ever.
And, of course, time-off from work can often help with work itself. Besides returning feeling refreshed, which can boost productivity, a change in scenery and routine can do wonders for creativity.
“We find that a lot of people’s creative ideas happen when they’re engaged in non-work activities,” said Jonathan Schooler, a professor and principal investigator of the META lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“You can come up with an idea, or a way to overcome an impasse that has stumped you,” he added.
But vacation time has long been undervalued in the U.S. and much of the western world—the workaholic mentality seems cemented in much of society.
“People have internalized this and feel guilt taking vacations, but there’s real value when it comes to refreshing oneself and thinking outside the box,” Schooler said.
There are also large swaths of society who cannot take a vacation. Many people cannot afford it. For people with disabilities, vacations can present unique challenges. In a precarious job market with many gig-economy jobs, people can be fearful of losing valuable income if they take time away, de Bloom said.
“I think many people are afraid to leave work because they think that many people will think they are lazy,” de Bloom said. “Free time, taking time off is considered lazy time. It’s not yet seen as a period that is really important for your work.”