Why Adults Need Summer Vacation, Too

For kids, summer vacation has long been known as a magical time, with its languid, lazy unstructured days leaving plenty of time for fantasy and space to grow.

Related: 11 Happy Quotes About Summertime

But what about adults?

Staggering figures suggest that a full half of American vacation days go unused. Most of us spend those sunny summer months confined to a workspace, thinking back nostalgically to those two-month breaks we used to get, but denying ourselves any real respite for fear of falling behind on responsibilities. At best, we may shuttle off guiltily for a long weekend or two, thinking, Maybe next year.

It’s almost as if, in the mayhem of modern life, we’ve forgotten that there’s a reason for summer break. And that the reason does not just apply to the younger set. Hence Europeans’ nonnegotiable tradition of taking a month off in the summer.

The economic pros and cons of Europe’s month-long summer vacations aside, I’ve seen over the course of several extended stays in France the benefits of quality time away from the grind of our usual routines. That enviable French art de vivre is nourished in part by the chance adults there have to take time to drink in the little things and ponder bigger questions about their lives and dreams. It’s nourished, too, by the underlying assumption that doing so is not only OK, but absolutely vital and imperative to adults’ well-being. A new setting brings a wonderful new range of sensory experiences, from scenery and sound to flavors, different light in the sky and, in some cases, the enchanting music of another language.

That’s why I’ve always tried my hardest to carve out the time for a real summer getaway, both with my family when raising children and also with friends or solo.

We all need a break from routine and work, not just for our bodies to take a rest, but so that we can check in with our overall direction in life, to make sure that we are not lost or have not lost ourselves! In this age of information, we are constantly reacting to texts, emails, global news, so it’s even more important to disconnect and change one’s pace.

Related: A Workaholic’s Guide to Relaxing on Vacation

What Wordsworth wrote in the early 19th century still applies:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”

The common metaphor is that taking a vacation is like pressing the “refresh button,” but I prefer a more rustic metaphor. For a field to be most productive and fertile, farmers rotate seeding fields so that a pasture can lie fallow for a period of time. Just as the fields become over-cultivated, so do we. By giving ourselves time to lie fallow, we can remember who we are, what we want to do and be in life, and then reflect on if we’re being it and doing it. We might also cultivate a heart for change.

Such was the case on the little vacation that I took in the Swiss Alps, hiking along from hutte to hutte, during which I began to see myself in a new light and which resulted in profound personal growth. My second novel, The Runaway Wife—set in these Swiss Alps—was inspired by that trip, as was a whole new chapter of my life.

Far more important than the exact destination is the journey: the process of packing the bags—a liberation in and of itself—locking the doors behind you and heading beyond the parameters of your usual world.

Even coming home after being away has a transformative effect, bringing a heightened sense of awareness about the place you call home. The answers to major life decisions will often take shape suddenly after re-entry from a vacation, and the once obscure path forward comes into focus, crystal clear.

But in this work-obsessed, constantly connected culture riddled with insecurities about professional and financial stability, how can we find the space to make adult summer vacations a reality?

  1. Give yourself permission to let go of the day-to-day for a set period of time. Remember: The world will not stop turning if you are off the grid.
  2. Plan ahead. The farther in advance you commit to your vacation and get it on the calendar, the easier it will be to make arrangements for your absence from work and home. It’ll also be easier to accept—and to embrace—the blocked-out stretch of days as yours.
  3. Don’t forget that whether you travel near or far, and whatever your budget may be, it’s the act of getting away and disconnecting not the extravagance of the trip that’s therapeutic.
  4. If you absolutely must stay at home, as Emily Dickinson wrote, There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away.”

Related: The 10 Most Revitalizing Vacations You Can Take

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Elizabeth Birkelund is author of the novels The Dressmaker and The Runaway Wife. Formerly the “Money Talk” columnist at Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth worked as a freelance magazine journalist, writing at such outlets as Self, Glamour and Working Woman, among others. She currently serves as a trustee on the boards of the National Humanities Center and the Center for Fiction in New York. Elizabeth is a graduate of Brown University. She has four adult sons and lives in New York City, where she is busy working on her next novel, an espionage romance.

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