Pursuing Happiness: The Art of Vacationing

I suffered just enough.

A while back, as I prepared for our every-other-year bike trip, I wrote that I had begun my cycling training a little too late. Last week, our group of friends took our 6th trip together, biking through the hills of the Paso Robles wine country and the central California coast. We biked about forty miles a day, and I was able to complete all the rides, suffering only mildly, and enjoying all of it.

I love these trips. To me, they are a perfect use of vacation time. The days are active – we wake up fairly early, and we are on our bikes (AIS – A** In Seat) by 8:30am. On the rides, I experience exploration, physical exertion, companionship, beauty, the outdoors, exhilaration, and in the end, a sense of accomplishment. We try to finish before lunch, so the rest of the day can be spent doing anything – eating, napping, exploring, wine tasting, or just taking in a new area. I exercised four hours a day and gained weight on the trip. Again, perfect. I thought I was doing well to add a few extra pounds, but my very strong friend Mark crushed me, gaining a full ten pounds. He’s definitely an over-achiever.

I try to make the most of each and every vacation day. I have found that these days help me in my long work weeks throughout the year. I feel like the time away is truly a gift. My sentiments are best explained by a relatively new concept called time affluence. I first learned about it from Dr. Laurie Santos, the professor who teaches the most popular course at Yale. Her course is all about the science of the pursuit of happiness – it’s called Psych 157: Psychology and the Good Life. (See notes at the end.)

Santos pushes the idea that one way we are happier is when we believe that we have plenty of time. The great thing is, we can all choose to feel time affluent. One way of feeling time affluent is to make the most of your vacation. Using research from Dr. Santos’ course and my own experience, here are some thoughts I have about using these trips as a means of maximizing time affluence.

Take all of your vacation time: I take every day of vacation time every year, and I advise everyone I work with to do the same. Clarification: I did not say take all of your sick leave. Over the years, I have been fortunate to earn one sick day for every month of work, and to work in an industry that allows me to take my sick days with me as I moved from one school district to another. As of today, I have 361 sick days. I’ll be fortunate to have them if I’m sick, but to me, a good rule of thumb is, if you are healthy, GO TO WORK ON THE DAYS YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE THERE! But vacation – that’s something different. Use it all.

Once Vacation Starts, End the Stress of Preparing for it: When I was young, my parents, all four kids, and our dogs would squeeze/pile into our Volkswagen Squareback or wood-paneled station wagon after what was always a very stressful last hour of final preparations. During that last hour, Dad would be yelling about us not being ready, and we would all be wondering why he was yelling at all of us, when clearly one of our other siblings was to blame. It was probably Bill’s fault, because he was the youngest. Then, after all of the craziness and yelling were done, and once the car doors were shut, my dad would take a deep breath, then loudly yet pleasantly announce, “Vacation has started. NO MORE ARGUING AND NOBODY CAN GET ANGRY!” At that moment, he would turn on the radio or put in an 8-track tape, and we were off driving on some new adventure, leaving behind all the stress of the moments before.

Pursue Active Leisure Time: Engage in your favorite hobbies, enjoy meals with friends, try something new and adventurous, exercise – do fun stuff. Active leisure allows my mind to get into the state of flow that I’ve written about before, where I am fully engaged in whatever I am doing, and not letting any other worries creep into my head.

Pursue Idle Leisure Time: One of my favorite hours spent on this vacation was observing over one hundred elephant seals sunning themselves on the beach. Those guys know what idle leisure time is all about. There’s a time for swimming gracefully, and there’s a time for lugging their 2-ton bodies up on the beach and doing . . .  nothing. I’m not a great nothing-doer, but I’m an outstanding napper. Gifted, in fact. One of the great failures of our nation is our refusal to adopt the siesta as a way of living. I’m not much of a sit around and talk for hours guy, but playing cribbage, cooking, and eating long meals – and napping . . . I’m all in for that. Downtime is good for the soul, and the science of happiness confirms that.

And through all of it, consciously take the time to reflect and feel grateful for the time that allows for the lack of stress, the active leisure, and the idle leisure. That gratitude is what makes us feel so time affluent.

So, do your best to be flexible, to get along, to take alone time when you need it, and to make the vacation special for everyone on the trip. It’s going to be great. Enjoy every moment.

All of us can make choices that can allow for time affluence, not only on vacations, but in our daily lives as well. I’ll write about that later.

Thanks for making time to read this post. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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Anyone can take Dr. Santos’ course. If you want a good article advertising itself as a cheat sheet to the course, check out this article by Adam Sternbergh.

To actually take the course online for free, you can take it through Corsera by clicking here.