Just yesterday, I met with my general contractor and he confessed:
“I haven’t taken a vacation in eleven years.”
My jaw dropped to the floor. On the inside, of course. On the outside, I nodded and smiled sympathetically, but seriously—eleven years?! How was he not burned out professionally? How was he balancing his work and home life? How was his health? I had so many questions.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that Americans take fewer and shorter vacations than almost every other developed country. In fact, nearly half of working Americans left paid vacation days unused last year!
The reasons why can vary widely.
If you’re a business owner or an entrepreneur, you may feel your business will fall apart without you at the helm. (The truth is, while many business owners feel crushed under this weight of dependence, they simultaneously crave the emotional satisfaction that comes from feeling needed.)
If you’re an employee, you may fear returning to a mountain of work or being seen as replaceable. You might want to prove your dedication to the company or the job, or may genuinely enjoy your work and think no one else can do it if you’re gone. And if expenses are high or money is tight, it may seem only prudent to forego a vacation in order to stow a little more cash away for a rainy day.
However, the endless benefits of taking vacations easily overshadow any excuses we could make to forgo them. Here are 8 of the most compelling reasons:
Our bodies aren’t meant to continuously expend energy—our daily need for food and sleep reminds us of this. This New York Times article explains we’re meant to “pulse between spending and recovering energy.” When we allow ourselves pockets of rest while on vacation, we can then pour more energy back into our professional lives, creative endeavors, relationships, and hobbies.
Our lives are made up of routines: morning rituals, daily commutes, meals, evening decompression. These patterns give us a sense of direction and safety, convince us we’re in control of our days. But without occasionally breaking up these patterns, our way of thinking can become restricted and shallow. Traveling to geographies and cultures that are new to us gives us fresh perspectives and enables us to think more creatively.
Vacations can remind us why we work so hard on a daily basis. We’re able to experience life in a more visceral, all-encompassing way than we do at home. Our senses are heightened, our minds whirring. It’s nice to remember we’re human-beings, not human-doings. And when we experience life beyond our little microcosms, we’re able to dive into our regular lives with renewed focus when we return.
There’s no need to make it too complicated—vacationing should be fun! As essayist and memoirist Annie Dillard reminds us, “we are here on this planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.” The world is vast and complex enough to keep us fascinated for a hundred lifetimes, so we may as well explore some of it while we can! Of course, that means really unplugging. Resist the urge to check that work email, and instead engage deeply with the landscapes and cultures around you.
Traveling also gives us the opportunity to meet people we would never run into in our regular, day-to-day lives. You never know what conversations can take place at a gas station or scenic overlook or restaurant, what characters will cross your path and perhaps even turn into friends. Everyone has a story, and we can learn much about ourselves by listening to the stories of those who seem very different from us.
There is also ample research that taking a vacation may bring your family closer together. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne explains that vacations provide a space for families to form new memories and relive old ones. These shared experiences, even when stressful, foster bonding and communication among family members. There is also research indicating that spouses who travel together feel more emotionally and physically satisfied with their marriages!
It should come as no surprise that taking a vacation does wonders for your physical health. Research shows that vacations lower the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks, and the increased vitamin D from being outside can help regulate your immune system and strengthen your bones. Vacationing has also been shown to lower stress-related cortisol levels, which can help you lose weight, strengthen your immune system, and lower blood pressure. And the increased output of dopamine and serotonin can ease depression, improve sleep and memory, and generally make you feel more joyful.
Europeans, with up to a month of paid vacation time, live longer than Americans and annual vacations decreased the overall risk of death 20% among men aged 35-57 and 50% among women aged 45-64, according to studies by the State University of New York at Oswego and the Framingham Heart Study, respectively. Must be all those healthier bodies, happier marriages, and energized professional lives. And when you live longer, that gives you more time to go on more vacations!
So whether you hit the road or hop on a plane or jump on a cruise, start that next vacation as soon as you can (as in right now!)