As Tennyson once wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Well, in the autumn, a knackered middle-aged woman’s thoughts turn to how the hell you can prolong the feeling of being on summer holiday. Because if you cannot hold on to that feeling much beyond the end of September, then what was the point of going on the sodding holiday in the first place?
This is a question that has occupied many great minds. Not least of all that of Richard A Friedman, professor of psychiatry and a favourite columnist of mine (in The New York Times). He is an expert on the subject of our thoughts and why they must constantly wander and torture us and never give us any peace. I recently stumbled across an article of Friedman’s on How to Bring Your Vacation Home With You and was fascinated by his solutions. His main answer, though, is depressing: scientifically speaking, it is proven that you kind of can’t.
This made sense to me. I was away from home for the best part of six weeks this summer and around 10 days of this was holiday. (The rest of the time I was “working” at the Edinburgh Fringe, if you can call talking into a microphone while wearing a lot of make-up and hairspray “working”.) Supposedly, a change is as good as a rest. Plus, I took extra do-nothing-whatsoever holiday time at the end of the summer. But now I’m back and I feel as if I never went away at all. In fact, if I look at the holiday pictures in my phone, they look like something that happened to someone else in a different century.
These are the things we need to take back into our everyday lives: under-scheduling, under-planning, leaving room for error, being under-prepared, allowing for the unexpected
This is common, says Friedman. He cites lots of studies that prove that the main benefits of holiday accrue in the first eight days of a vacation and then rapidly ebb away. There is no evidence that going away for more than a week is remotely useful. Worse, once you go back to work, all the benefits accrued are wiped away in the first day. (This last theory is according to a study by the Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Just saying the name of this institution makes me want not just a holiday but a lie-down in a darkened room.)
So, how do you eke out the summer vibe without resorting to wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a hula skirt to the office? (“Can I get a shot of pina colada in my latte? Hey, who moved the beach towel I put over my swivel chair?”) Friedman has a genius idea: embrace the concept of “unplanned joy”. Now, you’d think this is counterintuitive to the holiday spirit – the whole point of holidays is that they are planned, we look forward to them and part of the enjoyment is the anticipation and the planning. That is true. But, he argues, one of the key psychological benefits of holidays is that things happen that we can’t anticipate.
Holidays are good because they make us improvise because we do not have a timetable. And because things go wrong. For example: I left a whole bag of clothes at home, which meant I had two outfits to wear for a week. I ended up sunbathing naked (crazy!) and wearing workout gear out to a restaurant. I misunderstood the satnav, took a wrong turning and ended up in a beautiful Devon village that was completely off-grid. I fell asleep on the beach because I had nowhere else to go and nowhere to be. Only good things happened as a consequence of these unintended moments.
These are the things we need to take back into our everyday lives: under-scheduling, under-planning, leaving room for error, being under-prepared, allowing for the unexpected. So, write in your work diary: “Random time.” “Unplanned moment.” Or simply: “Keep this free.” This should at least make up in some small way for not being able to be naked and fall asleep whenever you want.