A few years back, I made the decision to take a short holiday every month. I did it for about three months, and it gave me plenty more time to reflect. I reached the conclusion that I don’t actually understand what a holiday is, and more importantly, why we should take them.
I have also had trouble reconciling the relaxing and enjoyable time I have on holiday with the accepted Stoic approach that we should be able to be tranquil whether we are. I’ve taken a roughly six-month break from taking short monthly breaks, but I will restart next month with the lessons I learnt while contemplating the material that makes up this essay.
The Stoic view of holidays is that they shouldn’t make much of a difference, because you can’t run away from yourself, and all the troubles in your world are caused by your opinions and reactions to outside events. That’s the thing – you have to take with you everywhere, no matter where you go, no matter how light you travel, and so your troubles should follow you whether you are.
Of course, there is also the fact to consider that we are different people at different times in different situations and places, but our core, the part that truly defines who we are, cannot be left in the city, while we escape for a weekend at the beach or the countryside.
However, I have found this not to be the case for myself. I can sometimes work myself into stress in the city, but then go away and be completed relaxed for a weekend. This might be due to the fact that I am Stoic enough not to care about work while I am way, but not Stoic enough to detach myself while I am actually working and having issues, and so remain calm even when things would normally be stressful.
Perhaps it is easier to mentally distance ourselves from issues when we are physically distant from them too.
Without any doubt, there is something extremely relaxing about being away from the usual everyday humdrum of life, free of responsibilities, worries, the usual places and faces. It makes one think that anything is possible, regardless of reality, but is this feeling of relaxation away from everyday life mean that we are not living our daily life correctly?
Why should normal life be stressful or not ideal, while being on holiday should be absolutely fantastic?
Perhaps there is even a positive correlation with the amount of enjoyment we have on holiday and the severity of the issues we have in our daily life. So the more we enjoy our holidays, the more this signals that we need to radical alter the way we live our everyday life.
That said, I find being away is great to think. The physical distance allows to the mind to think about everyday life in a more objective manner, but in some ways one could argue that the mind works even more subjectively while we are away.
After all, being on holiday for a lifetime would be an empty, sad existence.
Or would it?
The sweet is sweet because we have bitter to compare it to, but should normal life be bitter? Or should it be so awesome that a holiday is just a rest, but that’s about the extent of it?
A holiday is also an excuse to act like you normally wouldn’t. Many people, myself included, use it as an excuse to eat more, sleep in, drink, and generally do nothing.
Is that what we really want to do, or is it a temporary illusion, a mindset we put ourselves in?
In this essay, I want to study exactly what is a holiday, why it is enjoyable, and how to maximise this enjoyment.
What is a Holiday?
My first impulse, when I asked myself this question, was that it was a stupid one. I know what a holiday is, why am I even bothering to think about it.
Then, as I dug deeper, I realised I wasn’t quite sure.
If you ask the average person to describe what a holiday is, or what it means, you’ll find that the answers are broadly categorised as follows:
It’s a chance to relax, a change of pace, not doing any (or much) work.
It’s being in a different location.
So far, so good.
However, if we start exploring, we’ll find that things are not so clean cut.
For example, are we able to go on holiday while also continuing to work? Or is this a misnomer? Does going on holiday mean that you have to travel?
I guess that this group of questions really target the heart of the matter which is: what does it exactly mean to go “on holiday”.
After all, if a holiday is being in a different location, then how far do I need to go? Do I need to drive across the country, or travel to another continent, or can I just check in to a hotel in the same city I live in? Can I walk down the block? How about just down to the end of my garden? Can you take a single step and “go on holiday”?
Perhaps a holiday is not about distance, but about separation. Separation from communication, from daily life, from work, perhaps going on holiday is about mental distance, not physical distance.
Perhaps it’s the simple matter of communicating to other people your unavailability.
My gut feeling is that a holiday is a mixture of physical distance, lack of responsibility, and a change of routine. Perhaps there are also other factors too. My feeling is that each of these factors plays a role, and together they make a holiday what it is. If you have more of one, say physical distance, you can still keep some of the responsibility (i.e. checking work email) and still consider yourself on holiday.
Alternatively, you might not go very far, or even stay at home, but have completely no responsibility for a set period of time, and still consider yourself on holiday. This latter approach is what I have been doing for the past six months when usually I would go on holiday.
I guess it does help that I have a swimming pool.
What makes a holiday relaxing?
One of the words that often comes up when discussing holidays, is how they are relaxing. Or how one needs to relax, and so should go on holiday.
I’ll briefly get ahead of myself here, and offer a valid piece of advice. Because holidays are meant to be relaxing, I would shy away from making them overly complex, costly affairs. This doesn’t mean that you can’t fly to the other side of the world, but that you need to be careful not to do too much during a holiday, and put pressure on yourself for it to “work” well.
Ricardo Semlar makes a great point in his fantastic TED talk:
The opposite of work is not leisure, it’s idleness.
So make sure that you have enough idleness while you are on holiday. Ideally, you might even get a little bored, and that’s not a bad thing.
Okay, so getting back to the topic on hand, what is it about holidays that often makes them relaxing affairs? As a city boy, I am inclined to answer that it is often the fact that we are more in touch with nature. Many holidays involve getting out to nature, either on the coast or the seaside, and I think it’s this close contact with nature that is extremely relaxing.
Being in the (relative) wild is far more natural for humans than life in the city, and so perhaps this is why we are able to let our guard down. It may also be the fact that in many places in the world, city life is an absolute living nightmare with the traffic and the noise, light, and air pollution.
Is it not worrying? Is it the lack of responsibility? Is it the lack of ‘having’ to do something? A (perhaps false) sense of freedom?
If you understand what a holiday is, you can then understand what a non-holiday is.
How Often Should one go on Holiday?
I don’t think there is a set answer to this question, it depends completely on the individual and the life they lead. However, everyone probably needs a change of scenery once in a while, and so the minimum I would recommend is twice a year. Note that before you accuse me of being an elitist (who can afford to take two holidays a year), these holidays don’t have to be international jet-setting adventures, they can be something as simple as a weekend in the countryside. The idea is to simply get away from the routine of your daily life.
Twice a year. When other people are working… Feels much better.
As soon as the routine gets boring, or you find yourself resenting the places or people around you.
Again, I think the Stoics had in mind that our everyday life should be so awesome that we should not need a holiday to relax, but for other reasons, like reflection, contemplation, enjoyment, curiosity, bonding.
I should mention the definition of the word, and also where it comes from, how it could be considered a day to pray or reflect.
I also think that holidays are a great way to reflect on the self-destructive behaviour we indulge in during normal times, and also engage in other types of behaviour also.
One thing that it is, is a great opportunity to reflect.
How to Reflect on Holiday.
Because of the fact that we are away from our daily routines, and location, a holiday is a great time to reflect. It can be argued that we are different people at different times and different places, so reflecting on holiday is great because it allows us to look at ourselves from a different perspective.
Personally, when I am on holiday, I always feel that I am almost literally looking back at a different person working in the city when I think about my daily life.
As a holiday ends, the inevitability of the return begins to loom in our minds. What started out as a resentment for our daily life, suddenly begins to change. Like an oil tanker making a turn at a port, our idea of home switches to one of nostalgia. This can be attributed to the fact that our holiday has now become a routine, and suddenly the grass at home is starting to look somewhat greener.
This vision is normal shattered quite quickly upon reentry to normality, as the one thousand and one small petty issues of life return, and you instantly wish you could be back on holiday.
However, there are ways to cope with this phenomenon, and also strategies to make returning to routine slightly pleasant.
Surprisingly, many of the things we did on holiday, can be continued even in routine. There is no reason to stop reflection, writing, reading, taking time to do nothing, as long as you are serious about the commitment. Yes, there isn’t as much completely free time at home compared to when you are on holiday, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make time. I once read a suggestion that said that you should never discuss in terms of time, but in terms of priorities, and if it didn’t feel right, then you were doing something wrong. Instead of saying to a colleague or family member ‘I have’t got time for that’, say ‘That’s not a priority’.
If that feels uncomfortable, then something needs to change, because that is exactly what you are saying when you talk in terms of time, because that fateful sentence is actually incomplete, it should, but never, read: ‘I haven’t got time for that, because I have decided to do other things with my time.’
Nobody is a slave of time, but it can feel like that. Time doesn’t own you, you own your time, and you can choose what to do with it, regardless who tells you otherwise.
Of course, if life always felt like a holiday, that would also be terrible. I’ve [discussed before] my opinion that life is a joy to live precisely because there are contrasts, because there is both the sweet and the bitter, and without the bitter, we would not be able to appreciate the sweet things in life.
That’s why it can feel really great to come back to a quiet life at home after the excess of a holiday and fall back into a routine again.
A holiday can be an experience that inspires to change the rest of our lives, or it can be simply a quick way to recharge our batteries.