When a relaxing vacation seems further away than Timbuktu, here’s how to make the best of the little time you have. Your most important carry-on item? The mind-set you bring to the trip

Getting away from it all : when a relaxing vacation seems further away than Timbuktu, here’s how to make the best of the little time you have. Your most important carry-on item? The mind-set you bring to the trip

Richard A. Lovett

One of my prized possessions is a key-chain pendant with a heart superimposed on a map of Greenland. It’s a cheesy trinket, but it has real power. Each time I unlock a door, the memories come in staccato bursts. A clutch of brightly painted buildings thrown onto a snarl of rocky hillocks. Evening sun reflecting off slate-blue sea. Greenland can surprise even jaded travelers, and it still holds a piece of my soul.

Most of us have our own private Shangri-las–vacation memories that carry us through the drabbest hours of the 24/7 grind. Increasingly, though, we have to make do with memories alone. Americans are suffering from “vacation deficit disorder,” in author Joe Robinson’s all-too-accurate diagnosis. Work hours in the U.S. have increased by more than 12 percent in the past three decades, and the average American is allotted a paltry 9.6 days of vacation per year. Incredibly, many of us don’t even take fun advantage of this slim window: Travel industry data indicate that about 15 percent of vacation days in the U.S. go unused.

However happy this may make our employers, we pay a stiff price for the lack of quality downtime. In a nine-year study, Brooks Gump, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Oswego, found that men who skipped vacation for five consecutive years were 30 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took at least one week’s annual leave. Even skipping one year’s vacation was associated with an elevated risk of heart disease.

Researchers aren’t sure why people who take more vacations are less likely to die of heart attacks, but they have three theories: the time with family and friends; the escape from everyday worries; and the simple anticipation of a few stress-free days.

So what’s a wage slave to do? Faced with a scowling boss and a mountain of work, scheduling a soul-soothing two-week trip seems out of the question. The good news: There are ways to make our downsized vacations restful and restorative.


On vacation some people are determined to keep the cell phone charged up and ready to rip wherever they go. After all, they say, wouldn’t you want to know if the dog runs away or your house burns down?

In a word: No. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. That’s because there’s a link between cardiovascular reactivity and vigilance. The former is a laboratory measure of how your heart responds to minor stressors. “It’s kind of like being jumpy,” Gump says. The latter reflects how much you’re on the alert for potential problems. To some extent, being vigilant in an unfamiliar environment is natural, but one type of tension is avoidable: the nagging concern that the office may call at any time. To most effectively reduce cardiac stress, plan a vacation where your employers don’t even know how to get hold of you. Leave the phone at home, and resist the temptation to check e-mail.


A generation ago multiweek road trips were common, but today more and more people fly–and shorten their vacations accordingly. Half of American travel is now done on two- or three day minivacations, says Robinson.

Those vacationers don’t know what they’re missing. In 1986, I bicycled solo from California to Maine, exploring the U.S. at the leisurely pace of 12 miles per hour. About two weeks into the trip, somewhere in the sunburned hills of central Idaho, I slipped into a state of relaxation I’d never known before. Clocks, meetings and schedules were forgotten. I was fully committed to the world of sun, wind and sweat.

But what if you can’t spare more than a week? Shorter vacations may not cure a full-blown case of crash-and-bum exhaustion, but they seem to prevent milder episodes of burnout.


I once spent an entire day sitting in a meadow at the base of a tall volcanic spire. I didn’t speak, didn’t read–didn’t do much but watch the shadows change. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was using my vacation to practice what Portland, Oregon, psychologist John Christensen calls holiday mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. Christensen describes it as being fully present to yourself, your travel companions and your environment. It’s a way of both simplifying your vacation and recharging your mental batteries to better cope with day-to-day stress.

Like any art, it requires practice, but it can provide benefits much as meditation does. In a 2002 journal article, Gerhard Strauss-Blasche of the University of Vienna corroborates my belief that vacations slow down our perception of time, taking the edge off the feeling that everything is always coming at us in rapid-fire sequence. Deliberately mindful vacations can help this process along.

One way to cultivate mindfulness is to do what Robinson refers to as “unpacking” our mental baggage before leaving home. Too often, he says, we treat vacations as we treat our jobs. “We have a big to-do list, and if we don’t do everything on it, we’re miserable,” he says. “Leave that ‘production’ yardstick at home.”

The vacation process starts several weeks before you leave, says Pamela Ammondson, author of Clarity Quest: How to Take a Sabbatical Without Taking More Than a Week Off. Begin by getting enough sleep and some exercise. Then start taking seven-minute mini-sabbaticals in the middle of the day–outdoors or somewhere relaxing such as a flower shop or art gallery. You can also try one-day outings. And of course, it always helps to remember that the upcoming vacation is your time, not your employer’s, and hone your skills at saying no to overwork.


Some of us have a list with a lifetime’s worth of dream trips planned out. Others find it hard to choose. Christensen has several tips for winnowing the prospects:

Think back on the best moments of prior vacations. Were you contemplating dawn from a desert spa, or were you whooping it up at a tiki hut? Pick a vacation that has similar elements.

If you’re traveling with a partner, be prepared to compromise. One of you might want to do nothing but lie on the beach, while the other wants to hike, shop or visit art galleries. Be frank about your differences, Christensen says, and even spend time apart if that helps.

Be open to surprises. Generals know that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Similarly, no vacation unfolds exactly as planned. Maintain your sense of humor and try to view unexpected events as opportunities, rather than obstacles.

Even with the best preparation, some vacations don’t live up to expectations. Perhaps you just can’t slip into that mindfully relaxed state you were hoping for. Perhaps once you reach the beach, you realize you’d have rather gone to Europe. “You can’t guarantee the weather–externally or internally,” Christensen says.

Three years before my Greenland outing, I took another dream vacation–a three-week adventure tour of Iceland. For two weeks, it rained. And then, I got one beautiful day–so perfect that my eyes still water when I remember it. Did that one day make up for the preceding sogginess? Probably not. Is the memory ingrained forever in my list of private Shangrilas? Absolutely.

Amy Rolger, architectural photography

Kevin Rolger, event organizing

On their way to bicycle messenger races in Japan, Kevin says: “I’m totally pumped. I already feel good,” Amy’s been working 12-hour days: “I’ve been stressed out for a week” she says.

Bruce Reznick, commercial lawyer

Reznick, who travels so much that he has no home base, is on his way back from Laos. “I’m not a decompressor,” he says.

Samantha Pierce, food industry sales

Returning from a long weekend in Florida, Pierce says the stress will set in again “tomorrow, when I have to work when the dark cloud comes back.”

Michele Pierce, corporate finance

After seven days in Bermuda. “I’m already dreading the 150 e-mails,” Pierce says. She called her voice mail only three times. “I was adamant to be left alone,” she says.

Aruna Rao, tax office worker

Rao is making officemates jealous by cashing in on six months of accumulated vacation time, unusual even in her native Australia. Her decompression begins by touring New York City.

Daniel Wing, computer technician, Jean Watson, homemaker and CPA, and baby Ciara Wing

The family is returning home from a wedding in Poland. Watson says she detached herself from routine early and felt no compulsion to check in with the office.

Stanford Lattiboudeair, hospital worker

Elta Lattiboudeair, medical assistant

The two have just arrived home from 10 days in Jamaica, where they visited both family and a resort. “The minute I arrive, I throw my cares in the air,” she says. “I relax, eat, go to the beach.” “It wasn’t relaxing–we were running around,” he counters.


The upside of a uniform: Service can be strenuous, but a 1998 study of military reservists found that men on active duty in the U.S. were less burned out than comparably stressed men who stayed on the job. Simply getting out of the office provides some stress relief–and reservists get a sense of perspective and detachment from their everyday work.

Short-lived afterglow: How long does vacation relief last? One study found that a mere three days post-vacation, workers were already showing signs of stress; three weeks after returning to the job, burnout levels were the same as they were before the trip.

Perks of business travel: A study of 57 high-tech workers who traveled overseas for work found that even though a business trip brings its own pressures and strains, stress and burnout declined during the trip. Changing the environment and escaping the workaday rut seemed to make the difference.

Men at play: Older women pick vacations that are appropriate for their age; older men tend to choose trips that will allow them to act younger than they really are.

It’s over already?

Why do the first few days of vacation seem so long and the rest so short? A study of vacationers at an Israeli Club Med suggests that the first days stretch on forever because the experience is completely new. After that, habits like dining at the same table or swimming every morning make time seem to accelerate.

Fun keeps you young: Older people who organize their vacations around having a good time feel younger than their years. Those who plan trips in order to escape day-to-day life, however, feel their age.

Sweet memory: Like life, spring break seems to be more poignant in retrospect. Students on spring trips to Europe and Florida initially said they’d had less fun and less stress than they anticipated but four weeks after the vacation, rated the trip as being both better and more difficult than it really was. People focus on the highs and the lows and don’t remember all the mundane moments.

RELATED ARTICLE: The paradise paradox.

If you’re stuck in your cubicle most of the summer, look on the bright side: A host of stress-related ailments can crop up during vacation, ranging from leisure sickness to heart attacks.

Leisure sickness is a cluster of cold- and flu-like symptoms that only strike on weekends or vacations. Recognized only recently, the syndrome commonly afflicts overachievers who feel guilty about taking time off, Dutch researcher Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets found. Caffeine withdrawal may also play a role among those who skip their normal java.

Vigorous vacationing can also be hard on the heart. The beginning of a holiday involves unaccustomed physical and emotional stress, in a 2003 report in Psychosomatic Medicine, a team of Dutch and U.S. researchers warned people with heart conditions to be wary of unaccustomed exercise, extreme temperatures, heavy meals and foul-weather driving. Other cardiac stressors include arguments with travel companions and the lack of privacy in shared accommodations.

And if a flurry of catch-up work is waiting, long vacations can make returning to the job especially painful. In a 2002 study, Gerhard Strauss-Blasche of the University of Vienna found that high post-vacation workloads can quickly undo the stress-reduction benefits of a holiday. He suggests easing the transition so that you’re not immediately back at full-throttle: Build into your vacation a few half-days of work before you return to the grind full time.–RL

Richard A. Lovett is a science and travel writer from Portland, Oregon.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group