Summer is the time in the U.S. when we come closest to relaxing. This is partly cultural, partly environmental and partly commercial. Culturally, we recognize–(though to a much lesser degree than Western Europe )–that taking extended periods of time away from customary stresses and responsibilities is good for our mental health. The environment affords longer and warmer days. We are saturated with glamorous images of beaches, palm trees, bronzed bodies and exotic cocktails, all of which are designed to sell us something, but which also whet our appetite for a prolonged period of absolute, stress-free pleasure.
But Americans feel guilty about not working. The professional class valorizes being married to their jobs, constantly plugged in, and climbing the career ladder. Americans work more than anyone else, which for the poor is a bare necessity, but for the middle class is more of a status symbol. Our work ethic, culture, and economic system feed one another to create a status quo of overworked, under-rested citizens.
So why on earth would I argue against taking vacations?
It’s not that I’m opposed to time away, but rather the frame we use to think about the time we take. Vacations have become destinations in time—goalposts we set in the future and work tirelessly to reach, often ignoring opportunities to take care of ourselves in small, daily ways. Even worse, vacations can simply displace work, which means that taking them can cause more stress right before we leave and just after we return.
The idea that we are only allowed to relax for 2-4 weeks a year is a myth promulgated by our culture’s capitalist and materialist value system. Don’t buy into it!
Instead, consider that you deserve to—and in fact can—feel like your life is balanced a vast majority of the time. There a dozens of choices you likely make that are invisible to you—that is, you don’t realize they are choices—that contribute to chronic stress and over-busyness. For example, do you ever:
Savor the food your are eating?
Allow your mind to drift during unoccupied moments, rather than reaching for your smartphone?
Say ‘Yes’ to things that you don’t actually need to commit to?
Read the news or social media instead of taking a 10-minute walk outside?
Have quality connection with loved one for at least a half hour per day?
Read a book instead of watching television?
Play with your pet instead of just feed or walk him or her?
Spend time worrying uselessly about things rather than either taking action or shifting your attention?
Treat leisure and down time as something to be scheduled and protected?
These are not difficult choices to make, once we recognize them as choices. We also must cultivate a confidence that the little good things in our days add up, just like the little bad things do. So the next time you find yourself fantasizing about your upcoming vacation as a time to relax, instead ask yourself what you can do to create more spaciousness and leisure in your life today. It works, I promise!
I would love to hear your thoughts about other small ways you build self-care into your days.