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One Nation in Need of Vacation

Taking time off isn't lazy. It's essential.

vacation essay illustration by Mark Matcho
Photo caption
Don't take your work with you on a vacation. You can be sure it will be waiting for you when you return.

The word vacation comes from the Latin vacatio, or "freedom from duty," and by happy coincidence the first liberating stop for many vacationers is something called a duty-free shop. When a flight attendant wheels that trolley down the hushed aisle of a darkened airplane, she is not just whispering a sales pitch but telling you, the holidaygoer, what you have suddenly become: "Duty-free… duty-free… duty-free." When I vacation, I vacate: vacate the house, vacate the office, vacate the state, vacate the country. Vacation requires a metaphorical gulf–and preferably an actual one–between the vacationer and home. Vacation home, to me, is an oxymoron. There's a reason it's called Getting Away From It All. Going on vacation requires, above all else, going.

I like to get as far away as possible and bring along lots of books, themselves a form of escape, so that I'm now twice removed, like a distant cousin or the multiply deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

And yet, if statistics are to be believed, I am a freak: an American who loves–an American who takes—his vacation. My fellow citizens are the least vacationing people in the industrialized world. We receive, on average, 14 days of vacation a year, and no legally mandated paid leave. Even the Japanese average 17.5 days off annually, and they have a word–karoshi–for working oneself to death. American English, by contrast, has given the world the phrase working vacation, a favorite of employees at struggling companies whose leaders have grown unsympathetic to the concept of time off.

Possessed by guilt, ambition, and responsibility—by duty, that is—we are either afraid to or unable to unplug, which is why some hotels now offer to seize your PDA at check-in, the way prisons seize shoelaces and belts. It's really for our own good: We can't be trusted with our BlackBerries and laptops and iPhones. We literally can't be left to our own devices.

And we still don't take what little vacation we're offered: We use only 11 days of our annual allotment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that Americans leave 439 million vacation days unused every year. That's 1.2 million years—nearly the span of time from the discovery of fire to the present day—annually abandoned, melted down in the crucible of the cubicle.

More than a third of U.S. workers take fewer than seven days of vacation a year. By contrast, the French—who gave us the word leisure and perfected it as a concept—get 36 days and take 94 percent of them. In England (24 vacation days), leisure and pleasure rhyme. In the United States, leisure rhymes with seizure.

The truth is, leisure helps reduce seizures. Researchers at the State University of New York at Oswego studied 12,000 middle-aged men and concluded that guys who took annual vacations reduced their risk of death from heart disease by 30 percent. A study published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal stated that women who vacation at least twice a year are less depressed than women who vacation every other year. And why wouldn't they be?

Historically, it's been more difficult for a woman to experience vacatio—to feel entirely duty-free. Or entirely doody-free: My mother always seemed to be changing diapers on the station wagon tailgate at some windswept scenic overlook. Half a century ago Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who along with her husband helped spark dreams of taking flight from home and responsibility, wrote: "By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class."

I come from a long line of vacationers, and I know the salutary benefits of a holiday. My father took us away every summer, always leaving under cover of darkness, so that for the first several hours of every trip we rolled across the country like a band of fugitives. In doing so, he forged in each of his five children a love of travel, to say nothing of a castiron bladder.

From the beginning of time, and across cultural boundaries, humans have had wanderlust, often with the emphasis on the second half of that compound word. Jimmy Buffett sees the romantic possibilities when freedom from duty and dutyfree booze conspire: "The weather is here, I wish you were beautiful / My thoughts aren't too clear but don't run away / My girlfriend's a bore, my job is too dutiful / Hell nobody's perfect, would you like to play?"

It's a nearly universal human impulse. And so another bard—of Avon, not Margaritaville—was writing the very same sentiments some 400 years earlier in As You Like It: "Come woo me, woo me; for now I am in a holiday humour, and like enough to consent."

So humor me–"holiday humour" me–and consent. We are One Nation in Need of Vacation. Studies show that Americans would be more productive with increased time off. Some companies are now mandating that employees take their vacations. In short, it's not just your right to annually abdicate duty. It's your duty.

This article was first published in November 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.