News and Tribune

June 17, 2011

STAWAR: Vacations: Our quest for fun

By TERRY STAWAR
Local Columnist

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Vacation planning isn’t what it used to be. I remember my parents using a filling station map to drive clear across the country while I need a computer more powerful than the one used in the moon landing just to get to Chicago.

What are we doing and where are we vacationing these days?

Beaches are still the most popular attraction and last year the most popular vacation themes were “kid-friendly,” “historical,” “romantic” and “off the beaten path.”

Growing up, everyone talked about the two-week vacation as the standard, but today people are working harder than ever and vacations only average 12 or 13 days. Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt from the Center for Economic and Policy Research say that, “The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.”

Britain guarantees 20 days a year, Germany 24 and France a whopping 30 days. About 10 percent of Americans who are employed full time get no vacation days at all — that’s more than 28 million workers.

Americans get the least amount of vacation in the Western world and don’t even take all their allotted time. With high gas prices, pervasive unemployment and skyrocketing personal debt, more and more people feel they can’t afford vacations.

Our identities are often closely associated with our jobs and people may fear being perceived as slackers. Due to job insecurity, many people are afraid to be away from work for too long.

Thus, Americans end up sacrificing almost 500 million vacation days each year.

Most experts believe that vacations have a restorative effect and there is evidence to support this. Studies show that time away from work helps employees to be more productive and creative when they return.

Recently, Dutch researchers monitored happiness levels and found that vacations can have a positive effect on reported happiness, although benefits typically last only a few weeks, fading completely within two months after the vacation.

Psychologist Brooks Gump from the State University of New York and his colleagues that found that men who took more vacations had a lower risk of dying from heart disease. Among nurses, he found that vacations improved mental health and reduced emotional exhaustion.

How satisfied you are with your vacation usually determines how much it improves your mood and sense of well-being.

Since the economic downturn, one strategy people have adopted to counter the expense and anxiety of travel is the so-called “staycation,” or vacation at home.

It seems like there is even more to worry about on trips today. I know folks who refuse to travel because of their fear of bedbugs in hotel rooms.

Bloggers Karen Leland and Elizabeth Scott outline the following tips for conducting your successful staycation.

• Create a budget to cover special things while you stay at home and splurge a little.

• Avoid errand creep. Don’t let your vacation time get filled up with household chores.

• Become a local tourist and explore all those attractions you have neglected.

• Keep friends at bay, so your time can be your own.

• Set goals and have a schedule, but don’t overbook.

• Force yourself to do something new.

• Schedule time to simply do nothing.

• Turn off the phone and computer.

 Duke University economist Dan Ariely says that the vacation process can be divided into three distinct parts — anticipation, experience and memory.

Many of us get more pleasure planning and telling people about vacations than from the vacation itself. In the anticipatory stage we fantasize about how wonderful the experience will be.

For many people, like my wife Diane, who enjoys organizing things and is a relentless planner, this is one of the best parts of the trip. Diane once cut out a newspaper article on winter vacations in Yellowstone and 10 years later, remarkably there we were, riding snowmobiles among gigantic bison in the middle of all the geysers and snow.

People often tend to remember the best parts of vacations and ignore the rest. During an actual vacation, however, we are constantly confronted with all the naturally occurring disappointments, pressures and fears. Deprived of familiar routines and comforts, many people get anxious and crabby.

University of Washington psychologist Terence Mitchell coined the term “rosy view” to describe an over-optimistic memory of vacations, despite the many hardships and frustrations they often present.

For example only 5 percent of students on a bicycle tour expected to be disappointed before the trip. But a dramatic 61 percent said they were disappointed during the trip. A week later, however, only 11 percent remembered that they’d been disappointed.

University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener says that vacations are seldom the way we remember them. They tend to be “inherently ambiguous” and full of good and bad experiences. One brief moment can ruin an entire vacation.

On the other hand, Diener says, “Some vacations are miserable, but lead to great stories.”

I have had much more fun talking about vacation disasters than relating how wonderful they were. I also believe other people prefer to hear what went wrong than what a great time you had.

 While we’re away on vacation, we forget everyday problems and mundane family life sometimes gets idealized, which makes coming home to familiar routines a relief. This illusion, of course, fades quite quickly.

The length of a vacation seems to be less importance than its intensity.

Many experts suggest that multiple short trips can be more pleasurable than a single long journey. Multiple trips increase planning and anticipation opportunities.

 When you return, there are several ways to help extend the positive effects of your vacation. Mementos can be effective, according to Barry Gordon, from Johns Hopkins University.

Gordon says: “The trick is to use cues that evoke specific memories from the vacation, rather than rely on vague souvenirs.”

You can recreate emotional aspects of your trip by reenacting some of the experiences or reconstructing parts of your vacation environment at home. Listening to music you heard on vacation or preparing a favorite vacation meal can also help elicit positive feelings.

 Some people decorate with themes that evoke the good times they’ve had. Our nephew adopted a tropical theme for his apartment and I have decorations that remind me of New Orleans in my office.

Diane’s boating and hair-care consultant, Rudy, displays golf clubs or water skis in his shop all winter. I just hope Diane doesn’t cut out any articles about the Arctic Circle anytime soon.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. Reach him at tstawar@lifespr.com and checkout Welcome to Planet-Terry at www.planetterry.wordpress.com. He’ll be reluctantly having afternoon tea at the American Girl Place in Chicago next week.