Americans have finally gotten the memo to take more vacation, but they’re still doing it wrong.
Recent research from Project: Time Off finds that we are at peak vacation usage, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 2010. In 2017, we took an average of 17 days off, a half a day more than in 2016, and a whole day more than in 2010. Sounds great, right?
Well, there’s one big problem: The average person on vacay uses a maximum of eight days for travel at a time. That’s simply not gonna take the edge off. The perfect vacation length is at least eight days, because stuff doesn’t pop off until day eight anyway. And you know it takes a few days to really get into vacation mode and start actually enjoying a stress-free routine without worrying about every Slack message you’re missing.
There’s a certain amount of time you need to chill out so that the chilling out sticks. This is more true now, because we live in an era when we’re all tethered to the digital leash and often responsible for work after hours and on weekends. So if you can’t wash off the stress of the daily grind on weeknights or weekends, a proper vacation is the only Hail Mary you’ve got left. But add to this that most of us can’t really unplug on vacation and still check our phones anywhere from 80 to 300 times a day (as often as we check it while working) while we’re supposed to be off the grid, and you can see the necessity for a vacation that actually accomplishes vacationing.
To drill down into the abyss and figure out exactly how long you really need, researchers in Finland looked over all the previous studies regarding the connection between vacation length and how much respite it provides on the health and well-being front. Those studies are generally conducted by asking participants to score their moods prior to, during, and after vacation to get a sense of how it plays out.
The researchers replicated the previous studies, which typically evaluate four components of a vacation: Work stuff you still do on vacation, physical stuff you do (walking around, looking at stuff), social stuff you do (screaming at partner for forgetting sunscreen), and passive enjoyment (lying around sunburned like a moaning walrus).
But they also folded in a few new factors that had been identified as important on vacation, but not tied to the actual length of the trip.
One is our ability to savor experiences as we’re having them while relaxing. It is in these vacation moments when we can truly suck the marrow out of the publicly eaten banana bone of life, and we don’t care who notices.
Second is, as a result of all this savoring, we arguably sleep better. This provides the restorative vacation experience that allows us to return to work refreshed, at least for a minute. (And here you thought it was only measured by the strength of your Instagram game.)
This new research suggests these things are as intimately connected as a good swim trunk’s wedgie and your butt. They found that humans do indeed enjoy their vacations, but not so much at the beginning and not so much at the end. Rather, there is a “core phase” of the vacation that constitutes a vacation sweet spot, and it’s in the “medial 70 percent” of the vacation. You spend the first four days ramping up, the next four days ready to bust that vacation nut, and on day eight, look out, world. You are now what you might informally call “truly kickin’ it.” As a result, folks in the study who could kick it on peak vacation also slept more on vacation, averaging nearly an extra hour a night.
After peak vacation, health and wellness is still fine — no one is complaining — but you know vacation is ending soon, so you enter a phase of diminishing returns.
The takeaway here is simple enough: You should get at least eight days of vacation. The trouble is, most of us only take a week at a time, max, which means the day that would’ve knocked our socks off is the day we are actually just traveling, recovering or back at the desk.
More of a bummer is that the participants’ levels of well-being, even when they experienced peak vacation, still returned immediately to their baseline numbers on the very day they returned back to work.
The researchers note that this might lead us to believe that vacations are pointless. But they aren’t: What we still know is that even if you do return to work dispirited and broken, the positive effects of all that eighth-day savoring pay off in the long run in the cumulative sense. People who take vacations still live longer and experience healthier lives overall than those who don’t.
So, to repeat our earlier advice: Take your vacation. Just make sure it’s long enough.