By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.
Research shows that time off from work has physical and mental health benefits.
- Spending money on vacation tends to bring more lasting happiness than spending on material things.
- Doing some meditation during vacation may help prevent the rapid decline of its positive effects.
- There is not much agreement about how long a vacation needs to be to deliver the most benefits.
It is the middle of summer now, a time when many people go on vacation. If you are someone who still hesitates about going on vacation, let’s see what the research says.
Since the pandemic, our life and work significantly changed. We have been through a lot of stress, which is not good for our bodies and brains. Most research suggests that time off from work is good for our bodies and brains. It improves mental health, motivation, cognition, creativity, job performance, and even relationships. Studies also suggest (Gilovich, T. & Kumar, A. 2015) that spending money on vacation, which is an experiential purchase (the type that also includes meals out and concerts), tends to bring more lasting happiness than spending money on material things (clothing, jewelry, etc.). This may be in agreement with the old wisdom that says that what counts in life are memories of beautiful and meaningful experiences we were able to encounter throughout our life span. Some research also suggests that even planning a vacation may improve our mood. (I would agree with that since I love to plan a vacation.)
So, what are the other benefits of vacation? In a 2023 study (Ferguson, T. et al.), researchers found that vacation increases daily sleep, light physical activity, and moderate to vigorous physical activity. This postvacation sleep effect lasted 2 weeks, and changes were smaller for shorter vacations (less than 3 days). In another study on the fade-out effect of vacation (Kuhnel, J. & Sonnentag, S. 2011), teachers (131 of them) completed questionnaires before and after vacation. The results suggested that work engagement significantly increased and burnout decreased, but the effects only lasted for about one month.
Another interesting research question was how to get the most benefit from a vacation. In the 2021 study (Blasche, G. et al.), researchers found that if you do some meditation during vacation, it may help prevent the rapid decline of the positive effects of vacation.
Where should we go for our vacation to get the most benefits? One study suggests that if you are from the northern countries, you should go on two-week vacations to the tropics (Laukkala, T. et al. 2022).
How long does our vacation need to be to get us the most benefits? There is not much agreement in this area. Some studies suggest that even three days of vacation may be beneficial. In another study (Etzion, D. 2003), the researcher studied the effect of duration of time off from work on job stress and burnout. The results indicated that the positive effect of an annual vacation was the same for vacations of more than 10 days and for shorter vacations (7 to 10 days). Some other studies suggest that the positive effect of a vacation may last longer for people who have low-stress jobs.
So, how can we have a great vacation that has lasting benefits? A review of the literature does not get us a clear answer, mostly because it is very individualized. It depends on your individual preferences regarding time, place, and the activities that you do or don’t want to do. It also depends on the level of stress on your job, your ability to handle that stress, and your ability to fully relax when you are not working, which is not that easy for many people. We know a lot of friends who take their computers on vacations to stay informed about what is going on in their workplace. This may be a significant stressor on vacation and may minimizing its effects. If you have difficulty with taking time off and relaxing, therapy may be helpful, since our bodies and brains really do need some time off from working once in a while.
About the Author
Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.
Dr. Barbara Koltuska-Haskin has received her first foreign translation. How My Brain Works was recently translated into Polish and published in Poland.