Thanksgiving kicks off not only an intense retail sales season but a busy travel period. News headlines about the numbers of us that take to the road, air or train tracks, however, mask the fact that annually, Americans leave 429 million vacation days unused. That’s a statistic that makes me cringe.
I understand that when jobs are scarce and most employees are overworked and placed under pressure to do more, it’s sometimes hard to justify taking the time you’re allotted off work. The statistics bear out that feeling: according to a study by Oxford Economics, Americans are using less vacation time than ever. Forty percent of employees don’t take all of their vacation days because they have too much work to do. If they do take a break, they worry about how their work will get done and what their employers will think of them. From 1976 through 2000, Americans used 20.3 vacation days a year. In 2013, we used only 16. On top of that, the United States is the only developed country not to require employers to provide paid vacation time.
Those facts seem incongruous, given that people demonstrate extreme negative effects if they don’t take time off work, such as stress overload and a rise in anxiety level. Not taking vacation days has also been shown to decrease a person’s productivity and work performance. Traveling somewhere new, on the other hand, can improve physical and mental health, boost brainpower and increase creativity.
It seems we, as a nation, need to “work” on allowing ourselves not to work.
Travel makes you healthier
The purpose of taking time off work is to take a break from your normal routine and place yourself in a new environment or mode of doing things that requires you to think differently. And travel does this better than anything else.
A September 2015 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that more than three-quarters of the HR managers surveyed said that their employees who used their vacation time were more productive than those who didn’t. And the benefits keep adding up if you use those vacation days to travel: according to an article written by Julie Loffredi in U.S. News & World Report on September 23, 2015, Dr. Margaret J. King, director of Cultural Studies & Analysis—a think tank that decodes how consumers determine value in products, concepts and ideas—says a change of venue from home and work to “third places” devoted to just experiencing the environment allows the mind and body to reset, with stress relief the main outcome.
As for emotional health, many studies suggest that travel can improve that, too. A 2014 survey conducted by Diamond Resorts International found that over three-quarters of respondents reported feeling happier when they planned a trip at least once a year. And the benefits don’t end when your trip does: reminiscing about pleasant vacation memories triggers happiness long after you’ve returned home.
Travel makes you more creative
In 1869, Mark Twain wrote in his travelogue Innocents Abroad that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
There’s a scientific reason why travels have inspired numerous great writers, from Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Anais Nin. In general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired. Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, which means they’re sensitive to change: new languages, smells, sounds, sensations, sights and tastes spark different synapses in the brain and have the potential to revitalize the mind.
Adam Galinsky, a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of numerous studies on the connection between creativity and international travel, says that foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility—the mind’s ability to jump between different ideas, a key component of creativity—and depth and integration of thoughts, or the ability to make deep connections between disparate concepts.
On February 1, 2015, Galinsky published a study in the Academy of Management Journal that examined the experiences of creative directors of 270 high-end fashion houses. Combing through 11 years’ of fashion collections, Galinsky and his team of researchers looked for links between the creative directors’ experiences working abroad and the fashion houses’ creative and novel innovations. A pool of trade journalists and independent buyers rated the level of creativity of a given product. Results showed a clear correlation between time spent abroad and creative output: the brands whose creative directors had lived and worked in other countries produced more consistently creative fashion lines than those whose directors had not.
So, let’s all pledge not to feel guilty about our holiday travels or any other times we use our work vacation days. Next year, let’s aim for using all 429 million of them.
Do go out and find your true places and natural habitats,