You’re burnt out, contemplating a dramatic resignation and aching for a holiday – what tickles your fancy more? A three month getaway to the balmy beaches of the Bahamas or a week road trip to the NSW Mid-North Coast?
Apart from the magnetic attraction of a $10 schnitty at the bowlo by the coast, most people would opt for the three month getaway.
When you’re overwhelmed with work and life stress, conventional wisdom suggests that a longer holiday is a better, more rejuvenating one. But new research is challenging that assumption.
For 20 years, German sociologist Sabine Sonnentag has been trying to figure out exactly what kind of holiday provides the best recovery. With her colleagues, they narrowed it down to four factors.
- Mastery experiences
- Mental detachment
By their logic, the more of these four factors you can include in your getaway, the better you’ll feel when you return to your normal life.
So what does each of them mean?
Reading a book, leisurely walks, you know the drill. As the researchers define it, “a state of low activation and increased positive affect”.
The theory behind the need for control on holidays is that those who have very little control at work or at home – perhaps due to an overinvolved boss breathing down your neck and a never ending list of chores when you get home – these people get a lot of satisfaction from being able to control what they do on holidays. Therefore, if you’re one of these people, stay away from tours and rigid scheduling.
- Mastery experiences
Sure, binging your way through the Netflix library and kicking your feet up is relaxing, but it’s also pretty meaningless. Mastery experiences are those which are often challenging, engaging and rewarding. This could include solving a jigsaw puzzle, doing cryptic crosswords with grandma or going on challenging adventures like hiking or adventure sports. Psychologists have found that more meaningful “flow” activities increase people’s happiness more than self-indulgent relaxing activities.
- Psychological detachment
The smartphone has made this the most difficult step – because a rejuvenating holiday also requires you to switch off fully from work. People who continued to be interrupted by work-related calls, emails and texts showed higher levels of stress and family conflict when they were supposed to be relaxing on holiday. Maybe the rebooted Nokia wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
The importance of these last two points became apparent when researchers studied Israeli workers before and after their annual service in the military (a few weeks every year). When returning to work, they reported engagement on par with people who had just returned from holidays, suggesting that despite being mentally and physically challenging, simply escaping from the 9-5 grind in any form was rejuvenating.
But one question remains – even if you pack your holidays full of these four things, how long should you escape from work for? In this same study with the Israeli workers, they noticed something curious. No matter how incredible their holiday was, the benefits faded – fast. After just one month, the workers returned to the same level of job satisfaction. So after four weeks of improved happiness, engagement, energy and enjoyment at work and in life, they were just as happy (or unhappy) as they were before they went on their trip. This was irrespective of how incredible the holiday was – the emotional boost lasts just one measly month.
They also found that happiness peaked at around day 8 before plateauing or declining after that. This suggests that shorter, more frequent holidays are the way to go.
For ardent travellers, it’s a tricky toss-up. Travelling India for 3 months might seem like it’ll inject you with enough energy to last the year, but in reality that holiday buzz will probably fade in a month and you’ll be staring down the next 8 months of solid work with sadness. Therefore, if you can sprinkle your precious vacation time away over the course of the year, you’re far more likely to remain happy and energised over the whole year. Even if that means the NSW Mid-North Coast instead of the Bahamas. Your schnitty awaits.