ERIN ZAMMETT RUDDY | RedBook August 2014
Illustrations by Ben Wiseman
THERE YOU are, with your butt finally planted on a sandy beach after months of feeling like you might explode if you don’t get away. You spot a smiling, sun-kissed man. Look, it’s your husband, standing in the frothy surf. He motions for you to join him, and your first thoughts are, Let me just check my work email; let me put a second coat of sunblock on the kids; let me finish this chapter of the book everyone in the world has read but me; let me… take a selfie. And then you wonder why you return from a trip needing a vacation. It’s time to take back your time o!
Full, embarrassing disclosure: I keep thank-you notes in my carry-on suitcase. What better time to play catch-up on my to-do list, including my always-delinquent correspondence, than on vacation? Even worse, I have never taken a trip without lugging along my laptop. “For many of us, vacations only amplify our desire to do,” says Arianna Huffington,president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group and author of Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. “It can be di!cult to free ourselves from the gravitational pull of our habits.”
Our addiction to busyness follows us like a stray sock in our suitcase, but experts say we must change our ways or suffer real health consequences.“Chronic stress increases your risk of heart disease and other serious issues, so taking a vacation is one way to achieve optimal health and peace,” says Nicola Finley, M.D., integrative medicine physician at spa mecca Canyon Ranch in Tucson, AZ.
An incentive for all of us: 97 percent of travelers report feeling happier,healthier, and more productive postvacation if they’ve taken steps not to sabotage their time off, says a new survey by Shawn Achor, a researcher who has worked with the U.S.
Department of Defense to promote happiness. And 93 percent return with higher levels of energy. I wanted in on those benefits, and experts say that even those of us who are missing the R&R gene can have them.
First requirement: picking the right vacation. “Where you travel is paramount to ensuring a happy getaway,” says Michelle Gielan, Achor’s coauthor (who happens to also be his wife/travel companion) of the 2013 study he spearheaded on vacation
satisfaction. The best way to decide is to look back on what you’ve done in the past, including stay cations. “Did you feel rejuvenated? If it didn’t work, try something different,” says Gielan.
As for the common dilemma—to be superstar sightseers or spend the trip prone on a beach towel—Gielan recommends something in between: “We get a big happiness boost from engaging in new activities, so being on a beach where, say, surf lessons are an option is a great idea.” Just make sure you have at least one day that isn’t scheduled—no tours, no classes, no plans.
“Doing nothing is an activity,” says Finley. “As a doctor, I encourage it.”If you’re taking a vacation where your only goal is to unwind, be careful whom you invite to join you. “We don’t think about this enough,” says Finley. “If you’re with people who
are intense, there’s a tendency for you to be stressed-out as well.”
Of course, some travel companions aren’t optional. So how can we keep stress in check on vacation with our children—or, as I like to call it, “parenting in a different climate”? Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and a mother of two herself, says that vacations are a great time to practice letting your children fend for themselves a bit. For instance, you might let them pick out their clothes and—wait for it—find their own freaking shoes. Your job: Let go of things like whether their outfits match.
When your vacations involve visiting extended family, it’s easy to fall into the trap of turning into Debbie Dishwasher. To avoid that, says Markham, figure out one meal that each adult will be responsible for, and resist the urge to get involved—yes, even if you know your sister is screwing up the polenta (true story).
But before you head out on any vacation, do yourself a favor and go to bed.“Studies show that travelers get their worst sleep the night before a vacation,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Even if you’re at the most relaxing place on earth, if you arrive sleep-deprived, it’s going to be a lot harder to have a good time.” And
sleeping late once you get there can backfire. For one, you run the risk of missing out.
Take my pre-kid trip to Paris with my girlfriends: By the time we got ourselves out of bed at noon, all the pain au chocolats in the city were gone. Can anyone say… le buzzkill? And the health reason: “When you wake up much later than you would at home,
you throw o” your circadian clock, resulting in ‘social jet lag,’” says Breus. Translation: You’ll feel tired all day, even if you aren’t in a different time zone. I have to admit, some of my best vacation memories involve solitary moments on a porch or balcony before the kids were up… or in the evening when my phone had died.
Gielan says the bliss of being device-free has to do with giving our minds permission to fully be on vacay. “Checking email and
staying partially connected to work can be worse than just being at work,” she says. “Your brain is in neither place. You’re relaxing and working, but not doing either very well.”
If Arianna Huffington can manage a weeklong technology detox, any of us can. She spent last Christmas in Hawaii
with her daughters, her sister, and her ex-husband—“not photographing beautiful sunsets, not tweeting pictures
of my dinner, not participating in Throwback Thursday on Instagram.” What inspired Huffington: “I realized that the essential element of vacation should be to regain our sense of wonder, and that means disconnecting from the outside world and setting out on an inner journey. Instead of feeling regret that I had tweeted away my vacation, I resumed my plugged-in life knowing I’d
taken full advantage of my time away.”
Okay, I’m closing the laptop now. And I won’t even take a selfie while I do it.
Book your trip as far in advance as possible. This could be six weeks or six months, depending on where you’re going, but the general rule is, don’t be a last-minute girl. In one study, 90 percent of people who reported happy getaways had planned them more than a month ahead of time. “Our research shows that anticipation for a trip adds to the joy we experience while we’re away,” says Michelle Gielan, a researcher who has studied vacation happiness.
Create a vacation agenda. Seventy-four percent of respondents in Gielan’s study said the most stressful aspect of travel was arriving in an unfamiliar place and not knowing where to go and what to do. “The show-up-and-wing-it approach may feel freeing, but for many people it’s a recipe for anxiety,” says Gielan. “Talk to a travel agent, poll friends who’ve been there, read guidebooks or websites, and make specific plans. Even if you don’t wind up sticking to all or even most of them, knowing your options is key.”
Alert your coworkers that you’re going to be MIA. About a week and a half in advance, send an email reminding direct colleagues when you’re leaving, when you’ll be back, and to see you ASAP with anything pressing, says Gielan. And by the way, once you’re gone, be sure to turn on your out-of office messages. These alerts are a must because they let people know you’re not engaged—even if you aren’t planning to totally disconnect, says Kelly McGonigal,Ph.D., a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of The Willpower Instinct: “It gives you a sense of letting yourself off the hook—and isn’t that what vacation is about?”
Start packing a full week before your trip. Leesa Evans, a celebrity stylist who gets paid to pack for people, suggests trying everything on before it goes into the suitcase. And don’t pack solo pieces: “Think of everything in terms of outfits. This top with this bottom, or whatever your trip calls for.” That eliminates getting dressed stress.
Wean yourself from technology. Get this: One study found that our wireless use is actually higher on vacation than at home. Three days before your trip, begin scaling back on your Facebooking/FaceTiming/#facepalming. My new trick: I post that I’m
disconnecting, which helps me commit to staying away from social media. McGonigal calls it “outsourcing your willpower.”
Treat the plane ride like a Wi-Fi-free zone. Instead of paying the $12 fee to get a spotty Internet connection, read a book or do something else that says leisure, not labor. “Our study found that travelers need a 12- to 24-hour period to fully relax, so if you waituntil you arrive at your destination to begin that process, you’reessentially shortening your trip,” says Gielan. She recommends starting the wind-down clock the second you leave your house.“That means all activities from that point forward should reflectvacation,” she says. Permission to read a trashy novel on the plane!
Unpack as soon as you arrive. “The goal is to have the least amount of things on our mental to-do list while you’re away,” says Evans, who was also the costume designer on six of Judd Apatow’s movies (including Bridesmaids and This Is 40) and is always traveling herself. If you never unpack and you live out of your suitcase on vacation, your mind will constantly be on alert that you’re going back home, so you won’t be able to fully ease into the trip.
Leave your phone on airplane mode after you deplane—and keep it like that as long as possible. This will be easier to handle if you didn’t skip step 5.(Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to take pictures.) “Disconnecting is anvessential element of reconnecting when you return,” says Gielan. “When we give our brains a chance to breathe and rejuvenate, it allows us to be more engaged with friends and coworkers once we get back to our regular lives.”
Leave a day or two post-trip for reentry. This way you’re not sprinting back to the office the morning after you return home. “Knowing you’ll have 24 hours or so to run through all the work emails you missed will give you permission to really detach when you’re away,” says Finley.
Take photos—but not too many. Taking pictures makes it harder to remember what you’re photographing. “People mis-experience things by trying to document them,” says McGonigal. It’s better to be fully present and mindful of the activities you worked so hard to enjoy. And don’t share those pics on social media until you get home. “You don’t want to be sitting in your hotel room at night, scrolling though your phone to see if people ‘liked’ your photo,” says McGonigal. “That’s a pretty toxic process.”
Start thinking about where to go next!
(See: Step 1.)