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Time away often fails to accomplish its goal, research shows – should we really just be staying home for a rest? (Randall Moore/Randall Moore / The Globe and Mail)
Time away often fails to accomplish its goal, research shows – should we really just be staying home for a rest? (Randall Moore/Randall Moore / The Globe and Mail)


Maybe we need a rest from all these vacations Add to ...

Science has found that vacations aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.

I can definitely attest to this breakthrough. Driving up to a cottage in the Ottawa Valley to spend 10 days with my wife and two young children seemed like an ideal way to recharge my batteries, but it turned out to be quite the opposite.

After a stressful eight-hour trip, my long-awaited respite consisted of fighting off black fly swarms, sleepless nights in sweltering weather without air conditioning or Internet access, and a return home to an e-mail inbox full of demands. Instead of feeling rejuvenated, I felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation.

At least I’m not alone. Recent research shows that vacations don’t always have the replenishing effects we hope for.

Although there are those who do experience psychological and physical benefits, many people come back from their vacations more depleted than they left. One European study found 23 per cent of vacationers noticing no difference in how rested and relaxed they felt after returning from time away; 17 per cent actually felt worse.

Why would a vacation make us worse off?

The time and energy that goes into planning a vacation can be stressful. We have to think about budgeting, packing and managing the travel to our destination.

And during their time away, almost half of vacationers engage in some type of stressful activity, according to another recent study. We often travel with spouses, family members or friends, and everyone has their own idea of fun. This can mean we end up sightseeing when we would rather be on the beach, or crammed in a cottage with two other families when all we really want is alone time. We end up enduring our vacations rather than enjoying them.

Meanwhile, that whole “rest and relaxation” thing on vacation doesn’t always happen. A recent study in Work & Stress journal found that quality of sleep on vacation doesn’t actually improve. In some cases, you may get less shut-eye, because of time-zone changes or late-night socializing.

Finally, there are all the things that can go wrong – bad weather, getting sick on exotic food, lost luggage. When things don’t go as planned, dream getaway can turn into inescapable nightmare.

Research has found that people who fail to recuperate on vacation show no improved happiness when they return. In fact, they come back in worse moods, are less satisfied with their lives, are less involved in their work and are more likely to find themselves searching for new jobs.

But what if that vacation goes off without a hiccup and you reap the full benefits of a fantastic break? There is still bad news: Those positive effects have a short expiration date. A growing amount of research shows that a vacation’s rejuvenating effects last two or three weeks, at best. So unless you take a cruise at least once a month, vacations aren’t an ideal way to manage stress.

So if you do decide to squeeze in a getaway before summer’s end, make sure you get enough rest, focus on activities you enjoy and avoid creating new stressors – a tall order. Alternatively, you could just skip vacations altogether. Instead enjoy your summer weekends and revel in the fact that you aren’t stuck in traffic, getting bitten by black flies or counting down the days until you can sleep in your own air-conditioned bedroom again.

Jamie Gruman is associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Guelph, and a founding member and chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.

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