After I graduated college, my dream was to go on a big vacation, the kind of vacation that I saw friends posting to their Facebook, posing in front of beautiful Mediterranean vistas or iconic metropolitan skylines. In my mind, that was an ideal life; that was happiness. The freedom to visit special places would imbue my life with a special vitality, and this became the endgame for my day-to-day work and personal savings plan.
So when I went on my first big vacation to California last month, I learned some surprising things about this kind of happiness: about whether it’s real, and about whether it actually comes from external experiences.
Vacation Does Not Necessarily Mean Relaxation
Living in Florida, I’m encircled by vacation destinations, so much so that what Florida offers me has become mundane (I know, it’s a serious first world problem). I live 10 minutes from a beach, and I’ve been to the beach once in the past 3 months. I’ve been to Disney and Universal so many times that I’m far more likely to go downtown with friends when I’m in Orlando – the nightlife is actually pretty good here. And I'm not afraid to let my inner child come out at Universal Studios or Legoland - we've often gotten a hotel near the theme parks just so we could go play. Florida was not vacation to me, it was home. Elsewhere was vacation, elsewhere was relaxation.
So when I got to California, I assumed that the novelty of the new place would automatically place me in the mindset of vacation. I was wrong.
I knew, fundamentally, that there was no rush to get anywhere, no need to attend every reservation, and that thinking about my work at home was pointless, but that didn’t stop me from stressing. I stressed about my flight, about taxis and Uber, about dinner reservations, about getting in as many destinations as I could. At some point, I realized I was on vacation, but not relaxed.
Vacation is a Mindset, Not an Event
I was on vacation, but not in my head. I now think that “being on vacation” should be thought of as a type of mindfulness. You must be willing to cultivate thoughts of peace and acceptance when on vacation in a new place (if you want to enjoy your vacation, that is). I decided to actively acknowledge and set aside stressful thoughts, and focus instead on appreciating the moment.
By the end of my vacation, I was truly enjoying myself. And why not? I got to experience the Coastal Redwood forests of California as a sort of natural temple, to taste some of the best wine in the world, and look out over the Pacific Ocean from a thousand-foot outcrop. If I couldn’t let myself enjoy this, then the stress of the workaday world was all for naught.
I took this mindset home with me, and now I practice it in my day-to-day life. Stress gets me nowhere – if I take 5 minutes to stop and consider what’s important to me, and what’s important to attend to in my daily life, my priorities self-organize and I’m able to feel calm and relaxed.
Taking Time for Myself Isn't Selfish
I think that it’s necessary for sanity. Even now, when I can feel my thoughts becoming clouded from work without a break, taking a few moments to “go on vacation” can help me collect myself and be more productive, in the same way that “big vacation” can be the reset button on your life. Finding balance and being willing to take time away from work, chores and obligations can go a long way towards helping you actually manage your work, chores and obligations.