The commonly accepted cure for a stressful week or month at work is a jaunt to the beach, or, if you can afford it, a multiple-week vacation to somewhere exotic. The expression "I need a vacation" has been hammered into our corporate lexicon so much that, almost without thinking, a vacation is an accepted means to achieving balance and happiness.
But science seems to say otherwise.
A recent study in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life surveyed 1,530 Dutch individuals about how happy vacations made them. Of the group, nearly 1,000 took vacations, and the rest didn't, to serve as controls for the experiment. The researchers sent them surveys before and after their vacations to judge their happiness. The result?
"Generally, there is no difference between vacationers' and non-vacationers' post-trip happiness," the authors of the report concluded. "Vacationers reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness, compared to non-vacationers, possibly because they are anticipating their holiday. Only a very relaxed holiday trip boosts vacationers’ happiness further after return."
"Vacations do make people happy," the author of the report told The New York Times last year. "But we found people who are anticipating holiday trips show signs of increased happiness, and afterward there is hardly an effect."
There's two interesting points there: First, the "net happiness" left in a traveler is the same as someone who didn't travel at all. But almost more fascinating is the idea that planning the trip is more enjoyable than the trip itself.
The implications for travelers are clear enough: "Take your time planning the vacation," notes John M. Grohol, a psychiatrist and founder of Psychcentral.com. "This may be the most enjoyable part of the trip for many, as you can imagine all the things you plan on experiencing."
Another study, from the University of Surrey, came to similar ho-hum conclusion: Taking vacations does not cause "individuals to feel any worse off than before traveling," but its authors couldn't prove the opposite either, that vacations actually made people happier.
Even if vacation does provide momentary breaks in stress, it's a short term measure to ameliorate serious lifestyle and personal strains. A paper from two researchers at Tel Aviv University titled "The Impact of Job Stress and Vacation on Burnout and Absenteeism," came to the conclusion that "Vacation alleviated perceived job stress and burnout as predicted." But in just four weeks, prevacation levels of burnout returned.
Still, vacations are necessary, even if they don't lead to long-term happiness. There are two other reasons, scientifically, vacations are necessary. First, they let you think more clearly.
Jonah Lehrer, the author of Frontal Cortex, a blog for Wired, spent years studying how people come up with good ideas—or, in other words, the "aha" moment.
"What these scientists argue is that when you're really focused on the outside world [or on your business] that's where your consciousness is," he explains. "But when we're a little bored and a lot relaxed, we turn the spotlight of attention inward, and that makes us much more likely to hear this obscure circuit of cells, which makes it possible to get the insight in the first place."
And, scientifically, vacations seem likely to make you healthier.
As we reported last year, the Framingham Heart Study studied women's health over the course of 20 years and found that women who took only one vacation every six years were nearly eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Another study reported by The New York Times in 2008 found that men who did not take a vacation at least once a year had a "21 percent higher risk of death from all causes and were 32 percent more likely to die of a heart attack."