Editor’s note: John de Graaf is president of Take Back Your Time, a non-profit organization seeking to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine.
When I was a child in the 1950s and 60s there was little question in anyone’s mind that vacations were beneficial. Everyone I grew up with took them, expected them, talked about them and returned home refreshed from taking them. I couldn’t have imagined a summer without one, and neither could my parents.
Mom and dad didn’t have a lot of extra money, so our vacations were pretty simple affairs. We hopped in the car and drove somewhere within half a day’s distance from my home in San Francisco: Yosemite; Clear Lake; Russian River; Santa Cruz. Only rarely did we go farther—to Seattle for the World’s Fair, or to Disneyland.
Our trips lasted two weeks or longer as my father earned more vacation days from years on the job. We stayed in inexpensive motels or camped out. Looking back, I can see that we experienced all the benefits of vacation that experts now identify. My love for them has never left me.
Here are a few of those benefits:
Health. According to the Framingham health studies and others, regular vacations decrease men’s risk of heart disease by 32 percent and women’s by 50 percent. There is a simple reason for this. American work lives, marked by long hours and fierce competition, are stressful; indeed a cardiologist friend of mine calls workplace stress “the new tobacco.” A lengthy Swedish study showed that vacations not only improve individuals’ health but that of those they work with. Another, at Wisconsin’s Marshfield Clinic, also found a sharply reduced risk of depression for vacationers. For many doctors, “Take two weeks and call me in the morning,” is replacing “take two aspirins” as medical advice.
Happiness/experiences. Studies by Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado have shown conclusively that experiences like vacations provide more long-run life satisfaction than material goods. Moreover, the experience of planning a vacation often brings as much satisfaction as the trip itself, and the same is true for reminiscing after the trip is over.
Family bonding. Vacations take families away from everyday chores and routines and improve bonding. Families that play together more often stay together. And as was the case for me, two-thirds of Americans report that their most significant memories are of childhood vacations.
Education. Most children who take summer vacations do better in school the next year. Many parents take children to historical or natural sites, where learning takes place. But the simple change of routine refreshes children’s minds just as it does for workers.
Productivity. Several studies find higher productivity and better concentration among workers after their vacations, though these effects are not long-lived. Perhaps more importantly, many knowledge workers get their best ideas while away from the office on vacation; it’s a catalyst for creativity.
Economy. Vacation travel is essential for economic health; tourist dollars are the lifeblood of many communities and the travel industry is a leading source of jobs throughout the United States. A cost-benefit analysis done by the University of Washington Public Policy School found that a two-week vacation law would bring $900 million in benefits to that state.
World understanding. Travel writer Rick Steves points out that experiences with other countries and cultures break down misunderstanding and prejudice. Vacationers can be ambassadors of goodwill.
Freedom. It’s the pre-eminent American value. But the experience of freedom is rare when one’s life is controlled by work obligations. Free time is an essential freedom. We need periods of vacation time that are truly our own and free from the requirements of our jobs.
A poll conducted by the Nielsen group for Diamond Resorts International found that workers who regularly vacation report being nearly twice as happy, healthy and satisfied with their jobs as those who don’t. Those numbers translate into more engagement at work, less absenteeism, less sickness and lower turnover rates, big impacts on the bottom line.
Even without the confirmation of numerous scientific studies, each of these benefits was clear to me while I was growing up. They are not rocket science, they are common sense. Sadly, we seem to have lost a lot of that common sense since those golden days of my youth, leaving 429 million vacations days unused last year. Our Vacation Commitment campaign asks only that we remember what we’ve forgotten.