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Canada, it’s time to learn to (truly) take vacation

Celia Krampien/The Globe and Mail

Hey everybody, it's Canada Day! Are you looking forward to your vacation? Have you worked ahead on that deadline? Left a forwarding number on your e-mail auto reply? Have you packed all your electronic chargers? Will you be updating your Facebook status "Enjoying sunset by the lake" – even though you're clearly watching your fingers tap away?

While you were clearing off your desk, did you have reservations about going away at all?

If you answered "yes" to that last question, you're not alone. Canadians have never relaxed less than they do now, and that means many can't see the sunshine for the dark clouds of panic. The smartphones that should be liberating us from our desks have merely added links to the shackles. But technology isn't the only culprit. We are.

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Chris Rojek, a professor of sociology at City University London, argues that how and where we work has made relaxation "an incredibly problematic concept." The advent of flex-time, for example, has confused the divisions between work and play. "People don't have strict time off," he said. When they're not engaging in paid labour, they're preparing for it. As a result, "a lot of relaxation time is just anticlimax."

Data from the University of Waterloo in 2012 appears to back this up. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing measured GDP growth alongside quality of life in the years between 1994 and 2010. While gross domestic product grew nearly 29 per cent during that period, health, living standards and equity rose less than 6 per cent. Despite significant economic recovery since 2008, free time has virtually flat-lined.

That would come as a shock to our ancestors, who struggled for the right to retire and fought for statutory holidays. "Now our holiday time is invaded and we don't want to retire," Rojek said. He cites shrinking pensions and rising costs for postsecondary education as two reasons we're working harder and longer than ever. "That isn't a particularly healthy way of living. We should be enjoying life. Instead we brick in our free time with other activities."

Humans have suffered from a strain of workaholism since the ancient Romans and Greeks, for whom idleness was considered immoral. John Calvin and John Knox institutionalized the Protestant work ethic, and although Protestants represent an ever smaller proportion of Canadians, we remain faithful to the tenet.

"Whatever the source, there's still this imperative to be busy," said Mark Havitz, chair of recreation and leisure studies at Ontario's University of Waterloo. "It's not all bad – having an identity that marks you as useful to society is important for the vast majority," Havitz said. "But it's almost a sickness. I know people who love to be able to say, 'I haven't taken a vacation in five years.' I look at them and think, 'What a pitiful life.'"

Canadians should look to the Western Europeans, Havitz advised. They may not have sussed out the economy, but their 25-plus vacation days are untouchable. "We need legislation that mandates a certain amount of vacation time," he said. "Flexibility is really important, and if we leave it up to individuals, most won't do it. There's too much pressure to not think about that stuff as important."

What's more, we're not even good at being idle. At the University of Oregon in the 1990s, Havitz observed 75 married couples as they made decisions about a hypothetical vacation. He found that holidays are a worrisome proposition for families. "Fifty per cent chose something neither of them wanted," he said. "Part of it was trying to make each other happy. Part was trying to make the kids happy. But half of them were in a lose-lose situation.

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In the 1950 text The Lonely Crowd, American sociologist David Riesman organized populations since the beginning of civilization into three personality types. "Tradition-directed" types obeyed established rules of behaviour, often religion-based. They gave way to "inner-directed" people, motivated by their own personal, inherited values.

After the Second World War, those types were replaced by "other-directed" people, who look to their environment for behavioural cues. Influenced by advertising, trends and celebrity culture, other-directed people are "fundamentally neurotic," said Rojek. "We tend to make choices not by what we think is right, but what other people think is right."

And it has found its way into our downtime. Vacations are often wrapped up with status, whether we're taking a luxury cruise or volunteering to build a school in Bolivia. The number of days we're gone is dictated by what is acceptable. And the electronic gadgets we carry are determined by the work we're expected to take along with us. This prevents us from "getting into the flow," as psychologists call it, and leads to what Rojek calls "time famine."

Even the etymology of "spending" time is linked to money – something lost for something gained. So says Tom Delamere, a professor of recreation and tourism at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. "There's real value in passive forms of leisure, decompression. But some folks still look at that as wasted time."

Older civilizations handle leisure better, Delamere said. Consider Bhutan, which eradicated the GDP in the early 1970s in favour of Gross National Happiness.

In Italy, there's the slow movement. In 1999, amid the success of "slow food," a group of Italian mayors spawned Cittaslow, or Slow Cities, to reward entire communities for meeting environmental, infrastructure and hospitality goals. They began offering Cittaslow accreditation to successful towns – such as Cowichan Bay, B.C., the first Canadian town to be certified, followed by Naramata, in the Okanagan Valley. But such blessings can be mixed, according to Delamere. "Parking's a royal pain now, as people try to catch some of that slow vibe."

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If you're despairing that downtime doesn't come as effortlessly as it should, remember: it has always been thus. According to Michael Dawson, a historian at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, "Tourism and travel are learned activities." He cites newspaper articles from a century ago that educated readers about leisure travel, "because it wasn't natural. People had never had paid vacations before, so they needed to learn what to do.

"City folk were keen to escape the hustle and bustle, but they still wanted to bring their favourite chair, or the packaged food they were used to," Dawson said.

If they could afford an automobile, they would escape to the country . "But as they began driving, they transformed the outlying areas – until [those places] became more like the city they were trying to escape."

Not that he's making any judgments. Dawson said he tries to strike a balance between relying on his smartphone and leaving it behind, "but vacations can be stressful. Part of the stress is dealing with kids, and checking my e-mail is an escape from that."

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