There’s a bizarre state of being I can’t seem to avoid on international vacations. I’m standing in front of a painting or a statue, a little hungover, caffeinated, but almost too caffeinated, on edge, thinking about lunch, thinking about dinner, 15,000 steps into another 30,000-step day, reading the little card next to the art, then looking at the art, back and forth, three times, four, until I can generate some meaning from the moment, enough to justify all the money it cost to get here, enough to earn my next test with the next priceless piece…a few steps to the left.
It’s an acute, yet mighty form of “time anxiety.” On trips — and especially on ambitious ones that took months of planning and weeks of my PTO — there are inevitably moments where I fret the intensity of my itinerary. Am I doing enough? Trying enough things? Savoring enough sights? Could my time here be considered “authentic”?
A quiet place like a museum can cast an aggressive spotlight on how self-defeatist this mindset is. Simply put, it makes it really difficult to enjoy the art. Instead of ambling through, autonomically, drifting towards whatever moves you, you hyper-fixate, release a little cortisol and remember less of the entire experience as a result.
Why So Much Stress?
Where does this pressure even come from? Well, it really depends on what sort of traveler you are.
Last year, Agnes Callard wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “The Case Against Travel,” bemoaning our obsession with branding traveling as an achievement. Too many of us, the article suggests, have started to treat travel like The Amazing Race, trying to stack checkpoints and collect iconic photos as if our very survival — or our social survival, anyway — depends on it.
Others — me! — appear locked in a dubious competition with ourselves. We’re convinced that travel requires extraordinary effort, research and commitment, and then feel like we’ve let ourselves (or The Trip) down when we’re too tired or distracted to appreciate moments that are supposed to be extraordinarily special.
So we cram on. Where else but on vacation do people feel compelled to teach themselves a major city’s convoluted metro network in 36 hours or less? On trips, we stuff enough hometown activity for a month into a day: multiple restaurant reservations, a loop of a relevant park or cemetery, a bike rental, a brewery tour, an authors’ pub crawl, a show. Another version of this is sedentary Americans suddenly attempting to hike our beautiful — but often extremely demanding — national park system. One hike a year, and it’s got to be the South Rim of the Grand Canyon?
How to Read More Books Than Ever This YearThe first part of this six-step plan: giving up on “War and Peace”
The YOLO Years
This brand of megalo-living isn’t all bad. It definitely suits a certain subsection of people. (Like young people: studying abroad for the first time, taking a gap year, bouncing around hostels, working nomad visas, etc.) When you have no dependents and lots of energy, this feels like a natural way to interact with the world — especially places far-flung from your own.
At that age — the unemployed, or just-employed, age — one’s travels can pile up like unhinged Mad Libs entries. For instance, here are some real things that happened to me, once upon a time:
- Watched a Russian butcher a Bob Dylan medley on a harmonica in his khrushchevka one-bedroom in Saint Petersburg
- Lost my lucky sunglasses leaping from a rope swing into the San Marcos River one August in Texas
- Bribed a man to sneak me and my friends into Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano, the second-largest baseball stadium in the world
- Slept through “the most scenic train ride in Europe,” on a dawn excursion deep into Norway’s western fjords
- Cod-fished with a group of Newfoundlanders in the morning, then drank (slurped?) jello shots with them later that night
You get the idea. Certain epochs of your life are best lived with the brightness turned all the way up. Alcohol is probably inevitable. Flights are always too early. These aren’t the good old days — they’re just the days with the highest rate of new and unrelated experiences. And believe me, I feel beyond lucky to have had so many adventures.
A Dutch Vacation Study
That’s not to say you can’t have adventures as you age, but health experts would argue that they should arrive in more sustainable, uneventful and even relaxing ways.
Consider a study out of the Netherlands, published in Applied Research in Quality of Life. Researchers essentially discovered that Dutch vacationers were no happier than non-vacationers after their time away. Their trips were too stressful, too expensive, too tiring. They slept less, ate and drank more, and argued all the while.
It’s a sobering conclusion, but not a particularly surprising one. Perhaps this is why Americans leave their scraps of PTO on the table in alarming amounts each year, sacrificing billions of dollars in benefits in the process. The prospect of going away fills them with a Charlie Brown-esque dread.
There was one hopeful finding in the study, though. A single subset of vacationers who did feel better after their time away? Those who categorized their vacation as “very relaxing.”
How to PTO, Properly
It sounds so simple, and that’s because it kind of is. When planning a trip — at the earliest, picking-a-location stage — consider what will relax you, what will relax your partner and what will relax your kids, if you have any in the picture. Is it a few days at the beach? A week on a lake? A weekender in a city? The answer will change depending on the stage of life you’re in. The only thing you have to do is make sure you take the PTO in the first place.
When programming the trip, and later living it, look to minimize resistance above all. Remember you have nothing to prove — neither to social media nor yourself. That doesn’t mean sitting around in a hot tub for five days, necessarily. (Though there’s nothing wrong with that.) It just means striking a cadence where you’re experiencing things at your own pace. Having days that actually make sense.
This list might not be as eye-popping as the one I wrote out earlier, but here are things that can make up a worthwhile vacation:
- Going to the same place for coffee every day
- Jogging around a new city
- Getting groceries from a local market and cooking each night
- Resort stuff: golfing, tennis, pools, beach bars
- Visiting one museum a day
Turns out, it’s easier to process a painting when you haven’t crisscrossed an entire city in the 12 hours prior. On an uneventful vacation, there’s room to breathe, to process, to recharge. You can actually redeem all the purported benefits of vacationing — from improved mental to heart health — which few of us ever see.
You also don’t need to travel. Travel and vacation can be confused for synonyms, even though they’re not. Time spent living slowly in your own town is an excellent tool to deploy, as well.
Ultimately, know that you can go to a place far away and permit yourself to do…not much. The layovers and crunched airplane seats and jet-lag are challenge enough. All you have to do is be there; get up and go outside, see something new, do something you like. You can even do the exact same thing every single day. What’s more “authentic” than that?