According to the latest research, Americans are taking fewer vacations than ever before, and 55% don’t take all of their vacation days, Technology means we are perpetually tethered to the office, and studies show our stress levels are at an all-time high. To unpack the scientific research on the benefit of unstructured time, we called Katie Denis a researcher at Project Time Off, an organization encouraging people to unplug. Here are five research-backed reasons you should actually use those stockpiled vacation days:
Vacation is good for your heart
We all know how good it feels to slip out of town early on a Friday, or sit on the beach with a trashy paperback novel. And, we’re actually healthier for it. One study found that men who took frequent vacations were 21 percent less likely to die from any disease, and 32 percent less likely to die from heart disease. Another study showed that men who skipped vacations were more likely to have heart attacks than men who didn’t. The same study showed that women who took vacation once every six years were eight times more likely to develop heart disease than women who took vacations twice a year.
Time off reduces stress which can make you sick
Stress activates the release of cortisol, our “fight or flight” hormone. Experts believe that too much cortisol can lead to chronic inflammation, which can injure blood vessels and brain cells. To fix this, the American Psychological Association recommends taking a vacation. “The thing about stress is that it is very difficult to measure, but we do know that if you feel it, you have it,” Denis says. “And stress levels are off the charts. When you ask people if they experience some stress we are going to get a near universal agreement, that yes, ‘I have some stress in my life.’”
Time-off increases productivity
Many of us often think we accomplish more by working longer hours, but the data suggests otherwise. A Stanford researcher found that most people were able to be productive 50 hours a week, and after 55 hours their productivity plummeted. Plus, there was no difference in productivity between someone who worked 56 hours and someone who worked 70 hours. According to a study from Ernst & Young, for every 10 additional hours of vacation a person took, their employee rating went up by 8%. Research from the Boston Consulting Group found something similar: executives that were required to take time off were much more productive than those who kept working. “We did a survey of HR leaders and universally, they say people who take vacations are more productive, they are more creative, and they are overall better performers,” Denis says.
Without leisure time, you are more likely to become depressed
If you think that working too much is making you sad, you’re probably right. A Marshfield Clinic study followed 1,500 women in Wisconsin and found that women who took fewer vacations were more likely to be depressed. A similar study from the University of Pittsburgh found that leisure led to higher positive emotional levels and lower rates of depression. And a Dutch study found that people who had a trip to look forward to were happy for up to eight weeks before their trip. “We interviewed a bunch of therapists on the results, as well, to get their perspective on what they see in their offices, and basically, if you are that person that is constantly connected and can’t put the phone down, your relationships are going to suffer and that creates a set of downstream problems.”
Nature helps you focus and new things make you more creative
A growing body of scientific literature shows that nature, and getting out in nature leads to greater ability to focus. Plus, research shows that the more novelty you experience, the more likely you are to feel creative. “Time off can be anything, it doesn’t have to be travel, you could put a deck on your house and that could be relaxing for you,” Denis says. “What we find over and over again is the quality of the time depends on your interpretation of the time. If it is something that you find relaxing and fulfilling that’s all that really matters.”