Beating the stress: Putting your feet up may not be the best way to relax on holiday. Research shows that achieving optimal experience is an active rather than a passive activity. Picture: SUPPLIED
Beating the stress: Putting your feet up may not be the best way to relax on holiday. Research shows that achieving optimal experience is an active rather than a passive activity. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s been a tough year and you are looking forward to that holiday you booked months ago. Then the scurry to pack and travel and then — nothing. An anti-climax: you’re sitting on a patio, looking out over a gorgeous vista with a cocktail in your hand yet you don’t feel the contentment and relief you expected. In fact, you feel irritated and even more stressed than when you were at work. The dreamt-of holiday is not doing what it was supposed to: refresh, revive and de-stress you. Instead, you feel a kind of "holiday apathy".

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, working with a research team at the University of Chicago, went some way in explaining why, when we set time aside for leisure, we often feel agitated.

Optimum experience, or plain happiness, is mostly experienced when we are in "flow", Csikszentmihalyi found.

Having coined the term, he explained it as "being fully involved with every detail of our lives. Optimal experience is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt — sails, hull, wind and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colours on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator."

You don’t need to buy a yacht or become a painter: optimal experience can be as simple as "the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile", says Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow — The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

The point is that it is not the external circumstances that create flow; it is a state of mind and it happens more often at work than during leisure, the research team found: 52% of respondents in their study reported feeling apathy and dullness during leisure activities such as reading, watching TV, having friends over or going to a restaurant. So, while you are fully intending to enjoy your leisurely holiday, you may actually be missing the challenges of work, where your goals are clear and your skills are tested and stretched, like the sailor described above.

Csikszentmihalyi theorises that achieving optimal experience is an active rather than a passive activity. "Because optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity."

When it comes to holidays, that may mean building in specific activities you enjoy, such as birdwatching or photography, or starting an exercise routine. It means transferring some of your work attitude to your leisure time: setting goals, practising and expanding your skills, being in flow as much as possible and feeling a sense of the undertaking being worthwhile.

Because optimal experience depends on the ability to control what happens in consciousness moment by moment, each person has to achieve it on the basis of his own individual efforts and creativity

This can be achieved anywhere: people with this approach to their work and home life feel a greater sense of fulfilment, the research team found. So, even if your holiday destination turns out to be less than expected, you can create optimal experience. In theory.

Johannesburg stress expert and author Bridget Edwards recommends planning. "Create a list of all the things you want to achieve during the holidays, including the people you want to visit, gifts to purchase or make, baking, cooking etc. Plan your menus, make your shopping list, and then set aside time to achieve this. This prevents frustration, forgotten gifts and ingredients, and that last-minute stressful rush to get things done."

The role busyness plays in de-stressing was acknowledged 60 years ago by Club Med when they introduced the profession of gentil organisateur, or GO.

GOs go through special training at the firm’s University des Talents so they can help guests have more fun as they organise activities from fitness sessions to yoga on the beach; cookery lessons; tennis and other sports and, at resorts, ski and trapeze instruction.

If you suspect you may experience "holiday apathy", it’s an idea to book at a resort where there are planned activities you can participate in when you don’t feel like simply lying in the sun.

SA is a highly stressed society and many people take their problems with them on holiday, says Karen van Zyl of the Anger & Stress Management Centre in Johannesburg. "For most people, it is difficult to switch off from their daily stress. The holidays may bring another set of stressors, like family pressures and trying to keep up financially." Concurring with Csikszentmihalyi, she says: "People may have expectations that being on holiday will allow them to de-stress, but the opposite may occur."

Ways to help yourself to "switch off" include "easing into the holiday, realising it may take a few days to get used to the new routine. Trying not to pack too much into each day and budgeting around what you intend to spend can take the pressure off."

Eight to 12 hugs a day make you feel healthy and great about yourself. Instead of indulging in expensive, unnecessary gifts, find ways to make yourself and others feel good with simple acts of kindness. It will reduce your stress

Holidays can highlight relationship challenges. "If you are with family members that tend to irritate or stress you out, set limits that will honour you. Conflicts may arise as everyone may be trying to adjust to a different pace. Saying no is perfectly okay. It’s your holiday and you owe it to yourself to enjoy it," says Van Zyl.

Edwards says factoring in laughter and affection make a holiday run more smoothly. "Hugging releases the ‘happy’ chemical oxytocin, also known as the "bliss hormone".

"Eight to 12 hugs a day make you feel healthy and great about yourself. Instead of indulging in expensive, unnecessary gifts, find ways to make yourself and others feel good with simple acts of kindness. It will reduce your stress."

Laughter is the best medicine, she adds. "It immediately uplifts one’s mood. If you have nothing to laugh about, watch comedy DVDs or TV shows. YouTube is full of hilariously funny video clips."

Being engaged like this helps keep you in the present moment, which is essential for flow. Van Zyl says: "Make a conscious effort to stay in the present: enjoy what is happening in the here and force yourself to leave the stress of work or other stresses until you get back. They cannot be solved while on holiday."

Properly disengaging means resisting the urge to keep checking your cellphone.

"If you absolutely must check in with work, set aside an hour to do this every couple of days. Do not keep checking while you are doing holiday activities; it will spoil the fun. Activate the ‘out of office’ messages on all your devices or better still, leave them at home. You will be amazed at how life can go on without you."

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