Is a vacation good for your mental health? And if so, is that a good enough reason to take one?
Most people enjoy out-of-town excursions. Lots of people take them annually. But as another summer begins to fade, many workers may be wondering if a vacation is worth the trouble and expense — especially in a time of high gas prices and airfares.
And modern travelers often face an added problem as they go on holiday: They take along their personal technology devices, allowing the stresses that they are trying to escape to follow them out of town.
Given all that, should you go or should you stay?
Many experts say you ought to take that trip if you possibly can.
"I'm certainly in favor of all vacations," says Dunwoody psychologist Dr. Stan Hibbs. "I sometimes tell people that even a bad vacation is better than no vacation at all."
Hibbs points to the shared memories that a getaway trip can provide. He says even the unpleasant experiences, such as bad weather or poor accommodations, can become part of family lore. ("Remember that dude ranch where the air conditioning didn't work and the pool was closed?")
The overworked American
Hibbs suggests that we Americans need to take better care of ourselves. We take much less vacation than other people in the industrialized world.
Every country in the European Union, for instance, requires that workers get at least four work weeks of paid vacation per year.
The United States, on the other hand, is the only developed country in the world without a single legally required paid vacation day or holiday.
Still, vacation is not the priority in America that it is in some other places. And that may be cause for concern.
Noted Dutch psychologist Jessica de Bloom says that until recently, vacations have been a somewhat neglected research topic, even though a vacation "is a presumably powerful weapon against work stress and its consequences."
Another study from the Netherlands by Jeroen Nawijin and colleagues was designed to obtain a greater insight into the association between overall happiness and vacations.
These experts say that the more stressful the trip, the less you will benefit from being away.
They suggest that pre-trip happiness may come simply from planning the vacation. Many studies suggest that much of the fun is generally in the preparation stage, which is called a "mood booster." Anticipating the enjoyment to come helps lift people's spirits.
Occasionally, such anticipation can end in disappointment, says Hibbs. "If there's a lot of conflict in the family, sometimes vacations can intensify it."
Many people can recall family reunions where everyone bickered as old grievances were revived over the dinner table.
When people plan a trip together, personality differences can be important to consider.
Hibbs talks about the widely known Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, with "J" and "P" personality types. The J personality is great at planning and the P person is more spontaneous, says Hibbs.
"The J wants to have everything organized in advance," Hibbs says. For example, such a person "would never begin a trip" without making hotel reservations first.
"Conversely, the P personality," says Hibbs, "would rather go with the experience." They might say something like "let's just drive until we're tired and then find a place to stay." The P craves spur-of-the-moment adventures.
It's when P and J travel together that the "fun" begins, says Hibbs. But whether or not they always see eye to eye, even P and J need to get away from work, technology, bad news and mundane distractions.
"We (Americans) work long hours, take little time off, and then wonder why we are so tired and have so many health issues," says Hibbs.
The joy of disconnecting
Nowadays, can we stand to get away from the technology that's so much a part of our lives?
Psychologist Dr. Mikyta Daugherty, associate director of clinical services at the Georgia State University Counseling and Testing Center, says a recent trip she took shows that we can go technology-free and enjoy ourselves.
Although she was slow to adopt the habits of a techno-geek, Daugherty now describes herself as an "avid technology user." She says in today's academic environment, she relies on using a cellphone, a computer, a tablet and even a "smart watch."
"There is not much time that goes by without interacting with these gadgets in some way," she says.
But briefly last year, she found herself doing without her devices. She took a three-day cruise and had no wireless Internet connection and no cellphone signal. It was her first holiday from the technology that had become so important in her life.
How did Daugherty feel about that "disconnected" interlude?
"It was the best vacation I've ever had," she says. The sense of being away from it all, she says, made the cruise feel like the only true vacation she had ever taken.
"I did not touch my devices once," she recalls. In fact, she says, she didn't miss using them or even think about them until the cruise ship was pulling up to the dock upon her return.
"The fact that my attention had been so captivated was astounding to me — and refreshing," Daugherty says. The effect was so powerful that she has already booked a seven-day cruise for the coming winter.
Research from de Bloom shows that the "effect of job stressors on health and well-being of employees has been well established." Yet, at the same time, the findings show that vacation effects fade quickly.
Many studies note that vacations are a potentially powerful recovery opportunity. They can make the stress and pressure from everyday life disappear, if only temporarily.
Daugherty agrees. "A vacation is really just a mental experience that we should probably learn to do more often," she says.
Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.