Do you secretly hate holidays? Here’s how to relax and get the break you need

Holidays can be a double-edged sword - Getty

A holiday glows like a beacon on your calendar, those struck-out days as much a destination as France, or the Caribbean. What could be more enticing than a week or two away from the stresses of work and extended family, spent on a beach or in a far-off city?

But sadly – as anyone who has failed to find the hotel Wi-Fi code will attest – those precious weeks aren’t always the restful experience they are cracked up to be. For many people, going on holiday follows a yearly pattern – months of anticipation, followed by a fortnight’s let-down.

“Holidays can be a double-edged sword,” says Amos Szeps, the chief executive of Peoplemax, a boutique leadership coaching and wellbeing practice. “On the one hand, they can provide much needed respite and perspective. On the other, they can cause disappointment and actually increase stress. Understanding our own psychology can help to ensure that our precious time away enhances rather than diminishes our wellbeing.”

There are ways to make the most of your fortnight’s escape/incarceration, however. If you’re someone who finds the packing the most pleasurable part of going on holiday, read on.

Why holidays are good for us

Just being “away” makes you feel happier

It’s fun to see a beautiful place and come back to the bare bones of what it means to be human,” says Szeps. Indeed, a large body of research confirms that recreational travel increases positive emotions.

In 2016, a series of Dutch researchers followed a group of people before and after they went on holiday. “Various studies have shown that vacations increase levels of happiness, positive affect, well-being and life satisfaction,” adds Jessica de Bloom, the lead scientist. “These positive emotions encourage people to explore, learn and play which broadens their scope of attention, cognition and actions.”

They’re an opportunity to reduce stress

“Being on holiday can allow your nervous system to down-regulate in ways that are beneficial,” says Szeps. “The stress of a demanding job keeps your cortisol up and your testosterone down. Your breathing becomes shallow and your heart beats faster; making it harder to be creative or reflective during the daily grind.”

On a quiet beach, there is the opportunity for your cortisol to drop. “Physically moving yourself from a workplace takes you away from operating in the noise and being in a constant state of defence,” Szeps adds. “It gives you time to think, down-regulate and make decisions.”

A proper break can help you think more clearly

The 2016 study also tested the holiday makers for cognitive flexibility. Each subject was given a number of objects, such as a hammer, and asked for the greatest number of uses for the object in the shortest amount of time. In almost every case, they were able to think of more uses after their holiday.

“Time on a beach can give you space to think about the ‘bigger picture’ stuff,” says Szeps. This could include large decisions such as whether to change jobs, or make other life adjustments, such as moving house.

Spending time on the beach can allow headspace to think about the bigger picture - Getty

Holidays are good for your heart health health

Various long-term studies have shown the importance of holidays – or rather, the consequences of the lack of them – on our physical health. The 1992 Framingham Heart Study, an influential medical project which tracked workers over 20 years, found that men who don’t take vacations were 30 per cent more likely to have a heart attack. For women, this risk went up to 50 per cent.

But on the other hand, holidays can be a challenge

That year-round anticipation can be a let-down – and unexpectedly stressful

“The problem with holidays is the expectation all year round, then off we go,” says Szeps. And the reality of suddenly relocating to a new destination for a short time may not be as smooth as one hopes.

For starters, there are the unplanned-for hiccups – all the more stressful because you aren’t “supposed” to be feeling them: a delayed plane, sleepless flight, or an apartment not quite as optimistically situated as promised by AirbnB.

“The added pressure to be happy on holiday can make things worse,” Szeps explains. “It’s one thing to be miserable in your job, but if a holiday isn’t working out – your husband is annoying you, or your ankles are hurting – it can feel like a failure.”

You are still ‘you’ wherever you go

Addictions psychologists call this: “doing a geographical”. By moving to a new place, you think you’ll be able to escape the demons that are making you unhappy, only to be disappointed that they make the journey with you.

Or, as Szeps puts it: “You will still be you wherever you go. You will still have a big belly, your husband will still be annoying you. A person’s ‘happiness set point’ – the mood in which they are, most of the time – doesn’t tend to go up or down in a significant, lasting way, depending on their environment.”

Not having daily challenges is unnatural

“We are built to struggle and friction is part of life,” says Szeps. “Earlier in human existence, we rarely had the option of being comfortable – it was about the blind terror of finding the next meal.” For this reason, he says, the vacuum suddenly created – especially by longer holidays – can be stressful in itself.

“My view of life is that human beings create little mountains for themselves to climb. This is fundamental to our mental health, and a holiday is one flat beach,” he says. “On holidays there is always something annoying – sand in your butt cheeks, or a rude waiter – you don’t expect to feel irritated on holiday.”

Transition back to life can be tough

You’ve finally worked out how to use the dishwasher and have started to wind down. “But just as you’re finding perspective, you have to come back,” says Szeps. “The work issues are still there – the packed tube and the bullying boss – and they might perhaps be more apparent after a break.”

If this relates to you, it might be time to address the bigger picture. “The path to true happiness is not really about what you do on your holidays, rather how to navigate and enjoy every day so you may not need holidays at all,” Szeps adds.

Five ways to make your holiday work for you

Spread your annual leave rather than taking it in one go

According to a recent paper from the British Psychological Society, “binge vacationing” often isn’t the healthiest route. “Vacation benefits wash out fast,” say the authors. “It may be risky to put all your eggs in one basket, and hope for the perfect holiday. Instead, plan regular long weekends and short vacations to achieve a healthy work/ life balance.”

Do something physical, or structured

This is so you can create the necessary little challenges that Szeps sees as vital for fulfillment. “Set yourself a physical goal such as walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain,” he says. “Volunteer for a meaningful cause, or make a trip to research your ancestry. It could even be something as straightforward as spending your money in a local market that will benefit the residents.”

Man hiking
Setting yourself a physical challenge on holiday, like trekking, can help you feel fulfilled - Getty

Use your “out of office” wisely

Take a leaf out of the book of the Daimler car manufacturer in Germany. Their out-of-office reads: “I am on vacation. Your message is being deleted. Please resend your email after I am back in the office.” It can also help to end your OOO the day after you get back, taking the pressure off yourself (and giving some correspondents a nice surprise).

Think about how and when you check your emails while away

Studies have unsurprisingly shown that switching off completely is good for the brain. However, what if you are one of those people who feel more stressed by cutting ties with work completely? A 2012 study from Germany showed that if people limited their office contact to 30 minutes a day, and it was at a time of their choosing (i.e., the evening) this could actually be less stressful for execs who need to know what’s going on back home. The key was “self-determination”.

Go back to work on a Wednesday

According to the 2012 study, it’s better to start in the middle of the week to cushion the shock of re-entry. “Plan relaxing activities during the evening to help preserve positive vacation effects,” the authors explain.