The importance of time off

Most of us were trained to work hard. It may be killing us.
Schoodic sunset, photo by Carol L. Douglas

Yesterday I went to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. A gigantic cruise ship slowly disentangled itself from Bar Harbor. In the distance I could make out Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Peninsula. As the sun slumped toward the horizon, swarms of leaf-peepers swung their cameras and phones about and clicked away.

I didn’t sketch; I didn’t paint; I took no reference photos. I was there as a tourist, enjoying the changing fall foliage in our oldest national park.
It’s not that I don’t like to paint in Acadia. I’ve taught there for years. In fact, I will head back up later this month to work. (For one thing, the LL Bean outlet didn’t have any insulated boots in my size.) However, sometimes one needs a rest and a beautiful view. That’s true for every worker.
Drying towels, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
The Framingham Heart Study is a long-term ongoing cardiovascular study that began in 1948. Among its findings is a correlation between time off and longer, healthier lives. Men who skipped vacations for several years were 30% more likely to suffer heart attacks than those who took annual vacations. These vacations didn’t need to be elaborate or long; they simply needed to be a time when the worker downed tools and did something else, preferably with family and friends.
Then there’s brain function. We need time off in order to do our jobs better. Neuroscientists believe that chronic stress changes neural networks. Cortisol interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune function and bone density, and increases weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, depression and mental illness.
High Tide, Scott Island, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)

I understand how the real world lives. My husband would love to take some vacation time, but he’s on a project that’s perennially behind. He works long hours, and when he’s not working, he’s thinking about work. It’s taking its toll mentally and physically. That’s the killer of the American salaryman. As much as you will agree to work, that’s what your company will take.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. We have the longest work-week in the world, and even though we’re four times as productive as our grandparents were in 1950, we haven’t seen that translate into more time off. That’s a cultural phenomenon as much as it is a necessity. Most of us were trained to work hard, and we don’t know how to get out from under that except to retire.
Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
There’s a hidden way in which our workload has increased. The percentage of women in the workforce has nearly doubled since 1950. Housework is now a burden added to the paid workweek, for both men and women.
I’ve read that unemployment is at a 45-year low. Even the U6 rate, which includes marginally-attached workers and people working part time because they can’t find full time work, is approaching historic lows. That gives workers the kind of power we haven’t seen since Nixon was President. I hope as people renegotiate their terms of employment, they remember to ask for more time off. Maine is waiting for you.

A change is as good as a rest

Kaaterskill Falls, 8X10, unframed, by Carol L. Douglas. Kaaterskill Falls is one of America’s oldest tourist attractions.
Yesterday I was moaning with a friend about how a busy holiday leaves us needing a vacation. She said, “I can’t remember the last vacation I took.”
That’s something I hear frequently. It got me wondering about the history of the vacation. Luckily, while we may not get much time off, we can find almost anything online, and I went to Cindy Aron’s Working At Play: A History of Vacations in the United States for a précis.
The first tabernacle at Ocean Grove, NJ, in 1876, from Harper’s Monthly.
Of course the idea of vacationing arose with the elite: those wealthy people who could afford to get out of the steaming city in the summer and head to their rural estates or the shore. That started as a way of avoiding disease, just as the Grand Tour was meant as an educational capstone.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that vacationing became more commonly available. And as with so many things in 19th century America, the vacation was tied up with religious reform.
Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. This poster is from 1938.
On the one hand there were secular resorts like Saratoga Springs, NY, Hot Springs, VA, and Newport, RI. These catered to money, with a whiff of dissolution and activities like billiards, bowling, gambling, dances, and concerts. On the other hand, there were the improving resorts, like Chautauqua, NY (and all the little chautauquas it spawned) or Ocean Grove, NJ.
Kaaterskill Creek, 8X10, unframed, by Carol L. Douglas. 
Even as transportation improved and religious revival died down, the middle class tended to prefer improvement to frivolity, favoring camping, touring, and the National Parks over fashionable resorts. While there have always been amusement parks like Coney Island to attract middle-class visitors, it wasn’t until the opening of Disneyland in 1955 that the modern theme park was born.

Want an improving vacation? I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Read all about it here, or download a brochure here.