Everybody loves vacations. Or at least we think we do.
However, it’s not always true: research suggests vacations often end up being even more stressful than our daily lives. For example, in a Gallup poll a few years back, more than half of those polled reported being more stressed after coming back from vacation than before leaving!
This has always been puzzling to me. Shouldn’t it be easy to choose the right vacation? Apparently not. It begs the question: what’s the difference between a good vacation and a bad one, and how to make sure we only go on good ones?
Let’s start with this: what role should a good vacation serve? Most people I’ve talked to give two answers:
- to relax.
- to break free of ruts, by which I mean unwanted, habitual ways of thinking.
But these aren’t actually two separate things. Breaking free of our ruts is key to relaxing. We may be sipping colorful drinks with miniature umbrellas in the friscalating dusklight of some far flung tropical island, but if we’re still thinking about some problem from back home, it’s not relaxing. For this reason, we need to think about how vacations free us from our ruts, or fail to.
To do so, it helps to know a bit about how the brain works. Lucky for you, I’m a neurobiologist, or at least I used to be, before I became a conservationist.
Also lucky for you, the relevant concepts are simple: the first, and maybe only, thing you need to know is that we think and remember associatively.
All this means is that things remind us of other, related things. For example, let’s say you always use the same kind of pen at work. And let’s say you are on vacation and when you check into your hotel you see the hotel clerk use the exact same kind of pen to sign you in.
All of a sudden, you’re thinking about that invoice you left on your desk, or the work you promised to do before you left but didn’t.
This associative thinking is not an occasional thing. It is fundamentally the way our brains work. One thought leads to the next, by association, all day long, every day. That is both a blessing and a curse, depending on the circumstance. When you’re stressed out and trying to relax, it’s a curse.
In fact a rut is just a self reinforcing circular chain of associated thoughts. A vacation’s job, therefore, is to break that chain.
And perhaps the best way to do so is to expose ourselves to stimuli and environments which are as different as possible from the environment we were in when our rut formed.
The reason is that external stimuli play a strong role in guiding our associative thinking. In the example above, if you never see that pen, your thoughts are less likely to go spiraling back to work. Moreover, if instead of seeing that pen, you were to see something entirely new and different and dramatic, like let’s say, a supervolcano, it would send your thoughts spiraling off into some place likely unrelated to your problems back home, which would help dramatically in keeping you out of your rut. The longer you stay out of a rut pattern, the weaker its hold on you becomes, until eventually it stops being a rut.
You see what I’m getting at. Many vacations contain all sorts of things which can remind us of our problems back home. The hotel rooms we stay in during our vacations remind us of the hotel rooms we work in, the cars we move around in remind us of our commutes, and so on.
That’s why, above all, we need to choose vacations for which the minute-to-minute, all-day-long stimuli are as completely, absolutely different from anything we’re used to back home as they can be.
And that’s why bike tours, and especially Cycle Greater Yellowstone, make for amazing vacations. It’s not the usual succession of cars and buildings and streets and pens.
There will be a breeze on your skin all day long. You will be in the sun. You will be under the stars. You will be with a great big group of brand new people who are doing exactly what you are doing and enjoying it just as much. And you will be on the flanks of a supervolcano surrounded by an abundance of wildlife the likes of which most people never get to see in their lives.
In short, you WILL be freed of your ruts.
It’s another reason we’re so utterly, completely, deliriously happy we decided to organize Cycle Greater Yellowstone.
image courtesy Left Eye Images