I was wondering how to squeeze in a vacation this summer, and thinking maybe I should work through it or just skip it entirely, with all the other things going one—and suddenly I ran smack into the happiness data I’ve been working with in recent years, as well as a profound saying from the Ashtavakra Gita:
Even when he is still, the foolish man is busy.
Even when he is busy, the wise man is still.
There is this Eastern idea that the greatest things come out of stillness, not out of striving. Not out of the hamster treadmill we seem to be on day in and day out.
Whether we’re a stay-at-home mom or a corporate employee, we all want and need to get things done, of course. But we live in an age when everyone seems to be rushing around, exhausted and stressed, on the verge of burnout. We’ve entered an era where we can literally be “productive” 24/7, thanks to cell phones that live under our pillows at night.
And nowhere is this more evident than our vacations. Americans have fewer vacation days than any other developed nation—and we don’t even take all our vacation days. What’s more, 91 percent of the people who actually take vacation days end up checking work email on those days! We’re at a point where we literally don’t stop, ever.
There’s a reason for that, of course. Research by cultural psychologists Hazel Markus and Geert Hofsteder has shown that our culture, a set of norms built up over time as a belief system, has a deep influence on our views and attitudes. For Americans, this tendency to strive has much to do with the Protestant work ethic—the notion that you have to prove yourself in the eyes of God. Moreover, American culture, as an immigrant culture, is influenced by its highly industrious forefathers. These cultural norms developed long before it was even possible to work the hours we do now.
What’s ironic is that our tendency to work longer hours does not necessarily translate into greater productivity than our European counterparts. In fact, when we look at the science, the Eastern sages had it right: Constantly striving toward productivity can backfire. If we actually do a little less, spend more time being idle, having fun and unplugging from our hectic work schedule, we end up not just performing better, but also being happier.
If you don’t want to take a break for yourself, do it for your kids. Why? A recent survey of CEOs queried about the top attribute they look for in employees had this result: It’s creativity. This should come at no surprise, given every company’s need to innovate and be the next industry disruptor. However, the last two decades have shown a veritable creativity crisis in younger generations. While IQ levels remain the same or even increase, creativity scores have dropped dramatically. One plausible contributor is likely our tendency to work so much.
When are we at our most creative? When our mind is in delta mode: the daydream time right before sleep, when you’re taking a walk (without staring at your phone!), or when you’re spacing out. It’s that aha moment in the shower. Children are masters of creativity because they tend to daydream more often. Yet today, it is possible for adults to go through an entire day without ever entering a daydreaming state at all.
The good news is that we all have creativity—it just needs time off work and time off from screens. Another creativity-enhancing activity is having fun. Humans are the only mammals that stop playing when they’ve reached adulthood, so take a lesson from your dog or cat. It is when we play and laugh that we generate those intense positive emotions that brain-imaging research suggests help us approach problems in novel ways.
Diversifying your experiences can also help you be more innovative. Research shows that college students who choose to spend a semester at sea or travel to foreign countries score higher in creativity than their classmates who stay on campus. Let this be an excuse to finally take that trip to Honduras that you’ve been dreaming about!
Research also shows that, when we unplug from work completely while away from work (that is, not checking work email from home or on vacation), we are less likely to burn out and we are more engaged and productive when we return to work. You are better off completely indulging in your weekends off rather than trying to get a head start on work due next week. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, this may take the form of taking some time off from your child—guilt-free—to recharge so you can come back with greater enthusiasm, energy, and joy.
Another way to get more things done with less energy is to do those hard tasks (whether you’re trying to exercise more or write a book) in the morning. Research shows that our willpower is strongest in the morning, so that’s when you’ll get more done with less effort.
And finally, one more way to do nothing so as to get more done is through meditation. Countless research studies have shown that meditation can increase our attention, focus, and memory. It can help us be more productive and less stressed. So take a few minutes to breathe and empty your mind, and then decide where you are going to leave your cell phone when you take your vacation.
Emma Seppala, is the author of The Happiness Track (being published May 26th) and Science Director at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford Medical School.