My husband and I just returned from Tuscany and the South of France. We meandered through tiny medieval villages, visited Gothic cathedrals, and ate a lot of pasta. I lit prayer candles for my family in dark churches. We gaped at Michelangelo’s David and wandered through the Chagall museum. Two weeks later, we are back, climbing through piles of laundry, immersed yet again in work.
I prioritize vacations. I will invest lots of money in them, more than you might suspect by my outdated shoes and propensity to drive 10-year-old cars. Vacations for me are a highlight of life itself, a chance to have adventures and to see new sites. You might have seen me in Machu Picchu. Or on a deserted Greek beach. Or on a safari in Tanzania. Or in 45 of the 50 United States. I’m all in, and folks, psychological research says I’m onto something.
A study came out in 2010 which found that planning vacations brings people more happiness than actually going on vacation (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-to-make-the-most-of-vacation_n_5755b42ae4b0eb20fa0e906d). I can relate to this. The vacation part may fail to meet expectations. In fact, it was an uncomfortable 104 degrees in Italy last week. In Paris, it rained every single day. But the planning part! In the planning daydreams, the Parisian sky is bright blue, my feet never hurt, and the gelato has no calories. Vacation planning makes me smile, anticipating the perfect days to come.
So, there are mental health benefits to simply planning a vacation. But let’s be clear that actually taking the vacation is important too. We have to step away from our work now and then in order to stay fresh; the brain and body need a way to detach from the unavoidable stress of living. Vacations can be vital for both emotional and physical health (read more about it here: https://www.inc.com/lolly-daskal/4-scientific-reasons-why-vacation-is-awesome-for-you.html). I could launch into a long physiological explanation about why relaxation is vital for your health, but just trust me. Your body needs occasional prolonged relaxation in order to stay healthy for the long term.
The human brain can’t focus indefinitely without losing clarity and energy. I think it is particularly important for those of us in care-giving professions to get away. Compassion for others is not an infinite force. We need to have self-compassion too, and to occasionally rest our hearts and minds so that we can keep giving to others. Interestingly, my clients themselves seem to understand this. When I tell my clients I will be away for two weeks, they usually say, “Oh good for you! You need that!” And they are right; I do.
Getting away from work, my mind slows down. The constant mental churning fades (I have to return that phone call, I need to reschedule that appointment, did I answer that email?). My stomach unclenches, my shoulders relax. My habitual recitation of “have-to”s recedes into the background, and I become just a being. Look at that church! Taste this cappuccino! Listen to the seagulls! Life on vacation for me is slower and experience-focused. I can practically feel my body granting itself an extra year or two to live.
But hey, I can hear you grumbling. I know. Paid vacations are a luxury in this country, and travel isn’t cheap. And true, perhaps Italy isn’t for you. Just the same, I’m hoping you can plan some travel adventures. There are ways to vacation inexpensively, which I know, because I sometimes travel that way. When I was a kid, my family camped across America in a small tent with four sleeping bags and a Styrofoam cooler. After college graduation, I slung a backpack through Europe, ate bread and cheese daily, and slept in a spartan (but cheap) Roman nunnery. Another time I flew to San Jose, rented an economy car, and stayed for free with one of my favorite cousins. These trips didn’t cost much, but they were just as good.
However you manage, I am hoping that you will take some time to get away. See if, for a week, someone else can watch the dog or visit your mother. Plan that drive to see your high school best friend, like you keep promising you will. Let the laundry pile up. Put your extended absence greeting on your email setting. Please, my friend, please go away!