An annual holiday can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30 percent and in women by 50 percent.
Getting a decent dose of adventure these days requires a commodity as rare as a spam-less day: time off. It's vanishing before our eyes in an avalanche of shrinking company vacation policies, longer and more e-tool-besieged workweeks, and the frantic belief we've got too much to do to break away for something as unproductive as the experience of living.
Only 14 percent of Americans will take a vacation of two weeks or more this year. The standard holiday in the U.S. is now down to a long weekend. A third of American women don't get any paid annual leave anymore, a quarter of men, as vacation benefits vaporize like pensions.
- The Vanishing Vacation
- Why You Need a Break
- The Payoff of Adventure
- Get More Vacation Time
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The Vanishing Vacation
The fundamental problem is the lack of legal sanction for vacations in the U.S.—something we could change with a three-week minimum paid-leave law I've proposed to Congress. The United States, unlike a mere 137 other countries, has no annual leave statute on the books. Australians get four weeks off by law, Europeans four or five weeks. France and Finland have the most mandated time off—30 days—while just about all Europeans get still more vacation days by agreement with employers. Six weeks is norm in Holland, seven is not a bulletin in Sweden and Germany. Even the Japanese have two weeks. We have zero.
On top of that, the downsizing mania has made it harder to get away, leaving leaner and more overwhelmed staffs. Unbounded e-tools have ratcheted up the "I'm-too-busy" default further. But even with these obstacles, it takes two to tango in the no-life rut.
I recently got a call from an executive in L.A. at wits end. She hadn't taken a vacation in seven years and sounded like it. "The thing is, I'm not really like this," she tried to explain. She was in denial. I'd heard the reasons many times—too much going on at the office, not enough help, etc. But none of it justifies an absentee life. Skipped vacation time isn't coming back.
The good news is that you can be productive and carve out space for kayaking the Salmon River or trekking in the Andes without blackmailing your boss or finding a body double. And you can actually increase the amount of time off you get. Company policies are not as unbudgeable as you think. It's all possible when we dump the autopilot of busyness, guilt and fear and plot a proactive course for the heart of life immersion.
Why You Need a Break
A few months ago on vacation in the remote Cook Islands, I asked the skipper of a snorkeling expedition in Aitutaki Lagoon, the world's largest swimming pool, about angst in these parts. "Stress? What's that?" Captain Leo exploded in a spasm of laughter that jiggled like waves of Jell-o across his shirtless, sumo-sized body. He couldn't fathom the concept of job strain on these languid dots between Tonga and Tahiti. Neither could the New Zealanders and Americans he was showing around his outdoor aquarium. The knots of the workaday scrum were long gone.
Time off is medicine. Studies show that vacations are as important as watching your cholesterol or getting exercise. An annual holiday can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30 percent and in women by 50 percent. Vacations have been shown to cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, epidemic in today's 24-7. Time away from the source of stressors helps regather crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of mastery and social support. But here's the catch: It takes two weeks for that process to occur. You can't get those recuperative benefits from a long weekend.
Quality leisure is a major stress buffer, shielding us from the fray of the day. Researchers (McCann and D. Holmes) have demonstrated that aerobic leisure activities can reduce depression as well as anxiety (W. Morgan). It does that by pumping up the fun and competence. Participant leisure experiences also increase positive mood (J. Forgas & S. Moylan; R. C. Mannell) and build a sense of mastery, a buoyant stroke in a chaotic world. But wait! There's more! The supposedly nonproductive realm of leisure can also improve self-esteem, reduce loneliness and deliver the prize at the top of the psychological food chain, self-actualization—tapping your potential with optimal performance. Not bad. Outdoor adventurers get even more of the good stuff. Researchers R. A. Young and R. Crandall found the wilderness users were more self-actualized than non-wilderness users.
The recharge from a vacation also refuels your work. A study earlier this year (C. Fritz, S. Sonnentag) showed how vacations boost energy reserves so that you need less effort to get work done when you return. Self-reported job performance is "significantly higher after a vacation," notes respite expert Dov Eden of the University of Tel Aviv. Counter to the prevailing bravado myth, productivity is not a function of how long or torturously you work. In the knowledge economy, the source of true productivity is a refreshed and energized mind.
Above all, though, vacations help us see through the time-is-money hoax that keeps life on hold by placing all value and self-worth on production, on dollars-per-minute of output, and none on the input—living. What we learn atop a ridgeline in the Rockies or a dugout plying an Amazon tributary is that time itself is the most valuable currency. Supplies are extremely limited, as in finite.
The Payoff of Adventure
A host of research in recent years has detailed that increasing levels of performance, money, and status can't produce life satisfaction, because they're based on what others think. The thrill of a job promotion is gone in two weeks; for a lottery winner it's gone in two months—and then you're back to however you felt before. A study of the Forbes 400 richest Americans found they were only marginally happier than the average American while a number of them were downright miserable. External approval doesn't crank your noodle, because you don't really believe it. Here's something that does, because it's about what you think: The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, according to Seppo Iso-Ahola, author of Leisure Lifestyle and Health.
Adventure isn't a diversion from what we're supposed to be doing on this planet; it's the main event. Gregory Berns, author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment, says brain neurons crave two things critical to long-term life satisfaction—novelty and challenge, which just happen to be the starring players in adventure.
Humans have a biochemical need to taste the unknown. When we glimpse what's around the next bend or navigate a wicked rapid, our brains get a burst of dopamine, a chemical that drives reward centers and gives us the high of discovery. The active ingredient of adventure is the juice of direct experience—full participant immersion in the moment. It's as good as life gets, says Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, because these times give us what nobody else can— a sense we're determining the content of our lives.
Get More Vacation Time
So how do you get more of this elixir? Start taking your time as seriously as your money. Ask for more of it. It's no different than asking for a raise. The best approach is an incentive plan. Lay down a challenge. Your productivity will increase with the extra time off. A sales exec told me he did just that. He had only a week off to go to China, which was ridiculous. So he asked his manager for a second week, promising an increase in production if he got it. The salesman came back from the trip rejuvenated, his performance skyrocketed and the boss was so impressed he wound up giving everyone in the company two weeks off. Companies I know that have boosted vacation policies to three weeks have seen profits and productivity soar.
Another strategy that works is taking an additional week or two of unpaid leave. Or you can use a tool that's one of the keys to real vacations in the rest of the world: cross-training, getting colleagues versed in handling parts of your job duties while you're gone. You do the same for them. Try to interest your manager in a cross-training program, or do it yourself. Another option is to trade overtime hours for comp/vacation time.
What would really free up more time is a minimum paid-leave law. Join Work to Live and the grassroots Take Back Your Time campaign, as well as the Adventure Travel Trade Assoc., on an expedition to legalize vacations once and for all. The bill we've drafted would grant three weeks of leave to anyone who's worked at a job for a year and make it possible to finally do what we're born to: explore this planet without a shred of guilt.
If you'd like to help, go to www.worktolive.info or www.timeday.org.
Joe Robinson is author of Work to Live.
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