Mental Health, Well-Being and Vacations: What Do We Know?

When we think of past vacations, we remember lounging on a sunny beach drinking lemonade, loving every minute of freedom from work and daily obligations. But we often forget about the mosquitoes that bit us while we lay on our towel or the taxi ride to the beach when we got stuck in traffic. So do vacations really make us happier?

Overall, the data seems to support that health, at least, is affected by vacation. One longitudinal study looking at a nine year period showed that people who did not take annual vacations had a higher mortality rate1 or were more likely to die. Now, this doesn’t mean that taking a vacation will save your life (as much as it may feel that that way after a long time without one), it does suggest that something about vacations is good for us, which makes sense.

The effect of vacations on our mental health is still under investigation, but is thought to relate to both the passive and active roles of vacationing. The passive role of vacation is that it provides a new and more relaxing environment that is far away from the demands of daily life and work. The active role of vacation suggests that increased participation in hobbies and activities that we value improves our mental health2.

What is the evidence that well-being and mental health improve with vacations?

In one review that analyzed and integrated seven studies, exhaustion, life satisfaction and health complaints all improved with vacation2. However, happiness measurements were not taken during vacation, but rather relied on memories of the vacation, which can be biased. In a different study from 20113 that looked at happiness and activities during a winter sports vacation, there was a positive effect of vacation on mental health—people felt happier during vacation compared to two weeks before vacation. However, there was high variability between different people on similar vacations. While 60% of vacationers had a significantly positive effect, 23% felt no different and 17% felt worse.

How long does the vacation effect last?

Overall, it appears that the effects of vacation fade quickly, with some studies showing that it fades within 2-4 weeks and others showing immediate return to baseline happiness levels2. However, in the study of winter sports vacationers, the 60% of vacationers that were much happier during vacation sustained that effect even two weeks after vacation, returning to their baseline happiness levels at four weeks after vacation3.

Are there specific activities/experiences that are better and that could explain the differences in vacation effects between people?

Very little data had focused on specific activities during vacation. But the data from winter sports vacationers showed that those who derived a lot of pleasure from vacation activities (often ones who were more physically active) had higher health and wellness scores. Negative incidents during travel (like becoming ill, having an accident, getting into fights with family), unsurprisingly, were associated with worse health and wellness during vacation3.

Overall, vacations have the potential to make people happy. There are few studies analyzing the effect of vacation on mental health, but so far, research shows that vacations can improve mental health. And though there is no conclusive data, the activities done during vacation seem to play a role. What is unknown is for how long these effects last and whether some vacations are better than others. For now, plan to take that summer vacation.

References:

  1. Gump BB, Matthews KA. Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. Psychosom Med. 2000. doi:10.1097/00006842-200009000-00003
  2. de Bloom J, Kompier M, Geurts S, de Weerth C, Taris T, Sonnentag S. Do we recover from vacation? Meta-analysis of vacation effects on health and well-being. J Occup Health. 2009;51(1):13-25. doi:10.1539/joh.K8004
  3. de Bloom J, Geurts SAE, Sonnentag S, Taris T, de Weerth C, Kompier MAJ. How does a vacation from work affect employee health and well-being? Psychol Heal. 2011;26(12):1606-1622. doi:10.1080/08870446.2010.546860

 

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