Travel demand is sky-high for the upcoming vacation season, as millions flock to far-off destinations for much-needed vacations. But whether you’re traveling abroad, keeping it local or taking a staycation this summer, you can have a much more relaxing and meaningful break if you incorporate mindfulness into your reprieve from work.
As school winds down and the weather improves, taking a vacation is on a lot of people’s minds. According to a survey by the American Society of Travel Advisors, 30% of Americans plan to travel abroad this summer and 47% of survey respondents ranked spending discretionary money on a vacation as their number one choice.
I could definitely use a vacation about now, but as I was thinking about where to go, I recalled how many people have told me over the years when they return from vacation, that they need a vacation from their vacation. Back when I actually took regular vacations, I remember that it took me the first two or three days on vacation to actually start relaxing. My mind needed that time to switch from chaotic work mode to relaxation mode. And then the last day of vacation I started thinking about how much work was going to be waiting for me because I’d been gone for a week or two. Which of course threw relaxation mode out the window.
I haven’t taken a real vacation in ten years. I’ve taken off work, of course, but not gone away. I’ve traveled for business and tried to blend in fun and sight-seeing, but it was still a working trip, so doesn’t really count as a vacation. According to Merriam-Webster, the Latin origin of the word vacation means exemption from service, respite from work and to be empty, be free, have leisure. To be vacant.
How can we avoid losing a few of our vacation days to anxious thoughts and not need a vacation from our vacation? We can travel mindfully. Mindfulness helps us slow down and savor the amazing things life has to offer. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an exciting adventure if that’s what you want from a vacation, but by staying in the present moment, you’ll experience whatever you’re doing with more richness and less stress than without mindfulness.
I would suggest that if you’re not currently meditating or regularly doing some type of mindfulness practice, start now. We can’t just become mindful overnight. Begin with simple breathing exercises each day and start to bring full awareness to all of your activities. By the time your vacation starts, you won’t need three days to deactivate a monkey mind swirling with thoughts about work.
Mindfulness practices can also set the stage for increasing your vacation happiness. Studies show that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation and the effect of that vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. So start mindfully planning your trip at least 8 weeks in advance so you can enjoy that vacation glow before you even leave the house. Interestingly, happiness quickly drops back to baseline levels for most people after they return to work, but what influences this most is how much stress or relaxation a traveler experiences while on vacation. In a study from the Netherlands, they found that travelers that were relaxed, neutral or stressed on vacation all dropped back to their pre-vacation happiness level as soon as they returned. But those that reported feeling very relaxed while traveling maintained an increased happiness level for two weeks after returning to work. So to maximize the happiness boost, take advantage of the 8 week anticipation period and then make sure you’re super relaxed while on your trip. The study also didn’t find any relationship between the length of the vacation and overall happiness, so we all might want to consider taking several small trips a year rather than one big vacation, so we get the 8 week anticipation boost twice or more a year.
Mindfully planning a trip could include identifying what you can afford without incurring unreasonable debt, travel time in comparison to the length of the trip and considering the effect of your actions on the local environment. For example, tourists are wreaking havoc on Hawaii’s natural environment, especially the coral reefs. So consider what activities you want to do while on vacation and how you can mindfully do them without harming the local environment.
Another consideration in these times of flight delays and cancellations is luggage. Packing light can save you a lot of stress, not only in having to lug around suitcases, but in being able to quickly change flights and not worry about where your luggage will land. I can tell you from experience that arriving at your vacation destination without any clothing is not the best way to start relaxing. So ideally, avoid checking luggage. But if you’re traveling somewhere cold and have to pack heavy clothing, or have a long-haul flight, pack your travel essentials in a carry-on so that you can enjoy your first day of vacation even if your suitcase takes some extra time to join you.
Next, consider your expectations. Keep in mind that we often wish to experience what we see others enjoying on social media or TV, but we’re never seeing the whole picture. This is setting ourselves up for disappointment if our actual experience doesn’t live up to those unrealistic expectations. A mindful approach is to be open-minded to whatever experiences may arise. You might be quite surprised at what you discover once you arrive.
Consider avoiding the most crowded locations and instead, identify the day-trips available from those locations. I did this in Italy, Croatia and Mexico and it was delightful. By staying in a smaller town or village within an hour or two of the tourist-laden cities, I made day trips to enjoy the famous places while relaxing in peace in the early mornings and evenings. I had the added bonus of meeting the locals, sharing meals with them and learning about the history and culture of the areas. Another bonus is that it is substantially less expensive than staying in a major tourist destination. On these trips, it was the local experiences that were much more fun and meaningful than the museums and site-seeing excursions. I enjoyed those, too, but when it comes to the happiness factor, it was the low-key and casual activities that made the trips memorable and that carried my boost in happiness farther when I returned home.
Before you leave your home on the first day, spend a few minutes feeling gratitude for the trip that is about to start. Breathe slowly in and out, focusing on breathing in relaxation and breathing out anything related to work or obligations. Breathing in peace, breathing out stress or pressure. Notice any excitement you feel and enjoy that feeling of anticipation with wonder.
If problems arise during the transportation period, pay attention to what is occurring in the moment. Notice how others react to any challenges, without judgment, sending them compassionate thoughts. Notice how your body feels by scanning for tension or tightness. If you find any, breathe in and out until it relaxes. Show others kindness which will not only help them but will make you feel better as well. Don’t forget to show kindness to workers as well. They did not cause your plane or train to be late, but they certainly incur the wrath of disappointed travelers. Remember that allowing anger to take over only creates suffering, self-inflicted no less. Mindfulness includes acceptance, so consider accepting that there has been a glitch in your plans but it will pass. Whatever has happened has happened, so there’s no benefit to adding stress to the situation. It’s much more enjoyable to consider how you can make the best of it.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, mindfulness can continue to make the trip more enjoyable. Instead of racing through as many items on a checklist to complete as possible, slow down. Take the time to notice your surroundings, including more than what you can see. What are the sounds? Are there any aromas? Be and stay curious.
Try to establish a nighttime ritual on your first evening. Jet lag may be a problem, but if you stick to a routine, you can ensure a quicker recovery and get plenty of rest for the majority of your trip. Consider doing yoga or at least stretching before going to bed. After a long day of walking or standing in lines, your body needs to relax so as not to keep you awake. Try meditation to clear your mind of any troubling thoughts that might interfere with quality sleep. Go to bed at the same time each night so that you’ll feel your best when you wake up, ready to enjoy the day’s activities and wake up at the same time each morning to help your body rebalance its circadian rhythm.
Vacation is the perfect time to take meditative walks. Research local parks or green spaces where you can enjoy some quiet as you walk, or start with a popular tourist attraction but approach it at a different pace. Slow it down and observe your surroundings as you explore. Notice the people, the structures, the traffic, the greenery. Taking your time allows you to relax, to vacate the rushing and anxiety that occurs in your regular life. Try to avoid too many time limits to your adventures so that you can slow down and get a deeper feel for the place you’re in.
Practice gratitude throughout your trip. Studies show that gratitude has a positive effect on your well-being and practicing it as you travel will make for a more mindful experience. First, be grateful every day for the ability to travel, as many people don’t have that opportunity. Be grateful that you’re having an adventure or new experience which opens the mind and expands perspectives. Travel helps us grow as individuals and reminds us that we are all connected.
Eat mindfully while on your trip. Mindful eating means taking your time when eating and noticing everything you experience during the meal. Eating is one of the most interesting aspects of a vacation, an opportunity to try new dishes, experience new customs and to gather with other people. Take small bites and chew slower, savoring the unique tastes and aromas, bringing awareness and presence to each moment. Consider trying restaurants off the beaten path which can be quite rewarding and enjoyable.
Take the opportunity of being away from work to digitally detox. Put electronic devices away for the majority of the time. Focus on what you’re experiencing instead of what you can share on social media. Take pictures of what interests you instead of what will look best on a post. Disconnecting from technology helps you stay in the moment and reduces stress and anxiety. You’ll also find you sleep better.
Curiosity is a key factor of mindfulness. Whatever the experience, stay open and curious about all aspects of it. Ask locals questions and try some of their suggestions if offered. They have vast knowledge about the area and can frequently steer you toward a wonderful location, restaurant or shop that isn’t overwhelmed with other tourists. As you pay attention to your surroundings, chances are that you’ll become more curious. That leads to more discoveries which will make your journey a lot more meaningful. Traveling with an open mind also helps you get to know yourself better. Mindful travel leads to self-discovery as you become more aware of how your thoughts, sensations and feelings are affecting your reality. That will stay with you beyond the happiness boost once you return home.
If you can’t go away on vacation, you can make a staycation much more enjoyable through mindfulness. Plan your time off just as if you were going on a trip so that you can enjoy the anticipation of being off. Consider at least a few activities or locations you would like to incorporate into your time off. Without the pressure of work schedules, try new mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga. Use your days off to explore your own town or city with the same open-mindedness and curiosity that tourists practice in other locales. Give yourself a reprieve from housekeeping and other chores. Go out to eat at least a few times during the week to try new restaurants that you’ve never been to. Take a day trip to a nearby area that you’ve never visited and take a meditative walk. Try new foods and eat mindfully, whether in a restaurant or at home. Spend your staycation staying present and aware of whatever you’re experiencing.
Incorporating mindfulness practices into your vacation can help you be more present and engaged in the experience, enhancing your vacation and increasing feelings of relaxation and happiness. And remember, if you’re very relaxed while on vacation, you’ll feel happier for another couple of weeks when you return to work. But if you establish mindfulness practices while on vacation, you can bring those back with you to enhance your overall happiness and well-being permanently, whether at home or abroad.
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A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.