Emotional Health

Dr. Ford: 7 Ways to Make Your Summer Even Better

If you have time off this summer, as most of us do, it’s a good idea to try to maximize it. Your vacation, whether away or at home, will be over before you know it. Often we allow time to slip away, filling it with errands and the needs of others. Even our downtime has to be somewhat purposeful if we are to get anything out of it. Vacation should be different from our regular lives — not just another day whose only difference is that you are not on the job. To get the most from your time off, try to avoid passively going through your usual routines. This is a good moment to shake things up and try new things. When you get back to work, your goal is to feel relaxed and rested, and like you’ve really been away.


1. Alter Your Routine

If you go to bed too late, get up too early, rush through breakfast, etc., take a vacation from all that. Make sleep and rest a priority, and try some new ways to maximize it. For example, on vacation you can take a soothing bath before bed rather than a bracing wake-up shower in the morning.

Some of the best vacations I’ve had have been at places with no TV or Internet. Illuminated screens, including computers, are disruptive to sleep. They tend to activate, rather than soothe the mind. Reading, on the other hand, is a proven soporific, and naturally relaxes you. There are no flashing images or loud sounds. The rhythm is gentle and self-directed, and a good book (even if it’s exciting) is a better bet for restfulness. Reading before bed is correlated with better sleep and longer sleep. Readers also tend to fall asleep earlier, which means you have a better chance of sleeping more. And if you wake up earlier, then you will have more hours of the summer day to enjoy. Even if you are at home, you can decide to swear of TV and web surfing. I have friends who actually turn off their cable every summer and don’t reconnect until it’s over.


2. Try Something New

Summer is a good time to explore, make changes, and try new things. Whether this means choosing a new vacation spot or staying home and trying to learn a new skill, having the freedom and extra time to do something new is one of summer vacation’s chief joys. It has been shown that when we learn new skills our brains actually change and grow. For those who are aging, learning new skills can even be a hedge against the decline in cognitive functioning that occurs for most of us.

While we don’t have to aim to be Grandma Moses, who is famous for starting her painting career in her late 70s, it can be exciting to exercise new skills and discover hidden talents. Humans are wired to keep growing throughout our lives. The challenge of keeping our daily lives going, overloaded with family, work, and other responsibilities as most of us are, often prevents that. Use vacation time to rectify that and you will feel renewed. An added bonus is that you may be able to continue your new skill or hobby after vacation, or at least go back to it on future vacations.


3. Reach Out to Friends

Vacation affords us the extra time we don’t usually have to catch up on things, and while it may be prudent to take care of other things you have let slide, the very productive thing you can do for your mood is to catch up with old friends. Every major study of wellbeing points to the strong correlation of friendship and social connection with happiness and health. The more love and friendship we have in our lives, it seems, the better off we are.

As we all know friendships require care and attention to thrive and we are often too overwhelmed to devote enough time to them during our day-to-day lives. Your vacation presents an opportunity to rectify that either by phoning, emailing, writing, or most ideally, getting together with old friends. The older and closer the friend, the easier it will be to pick up where you left off, but even newer friendships can benefit from the time you have available to strengthen them. If you are traveling, consider looking up old friends or even inviting them to join you. If you are staying home, ask them to visit or plan a party.


4. Organize Mementos

Gratitude is one of the keys to happiness, and going over old pictures and mementoes can be an excellent way to “spark” it. Most of us have little time during the rest of the year to organize our photos and keepsakes, and vacation is a good time to sort through things and organize them in a way that makes them accessible. The act of making an album itself not only gives creative satisfaction, it also provides the chance to reminisce and recall events and people you hold dear. And you have the added benefit of having a finished product that affords you the chance to revisit these memories easily in the future.

The technology available at websites, like IPhoto, Snapfish, etc., allows you to create both online albums and physical prints or books easily. You can also order multiple copies, providing you with gifts for your family and friends as well.


5. Take Care of Your Body

If you are someone who doesn’t have time to exercise, start eating healthier food, visit doctors, or many of the other self-care activities that can fall by the wayside during the rest of the year, this can be an ideal time to take care of your health and to establish new routines. Staying healthy is now seen more and more as an active pursuit rather than a matter of good luck. You can add years to your life and make those years healthier stronger ones by making a few basic changes.

But these things take time. During the rest of the year we are often too harried to try new recipes, take time to meditate, take up a new sport, etc. Just getting home in time to put something on the table for dinner is an accomplishment. Establishing new routines can take several weeks and the effort to get started may require some investigation (e.g. researching gyms, or learning how to cook healthier foods) that involves a certain amount of trial and error.


6. Lend a Hand

If you are someone who doesn’t have time for a regular volunteer job but would like to contribute in some way, summer vacation can provide the space for this as well. A whole new industry has arisen catering to people interested in combining traveling with volunteering. You can save wildlife, take a week teaching English in Haiti, or build a house with Habitat for Humanity. There are also websites devoted to helping you find ways to volunteer for a day or so, even if you can’t make a longer or ongoing commitment.

If you want to try to fit volunteer work in on a regular basis, summer also provides the time to explore the issue, and get the training needed for some jobs. For example, the Good Dog Foundation, a very flexible organization that provides hundreds of ways in which you and your pet can comfort the sick, visit children or the elderly, requires you to take your dog through a training course for certification. You can get a head start on this by beginning during summer vacation, making it easier to keep up your volunteering during the rest of the year. Volunteer work is yet another activity that correlates highly with overall happiness and wellbeing.


7. Remember to Relax

Most important, remember to relax. Sometimes it’s hard to dial down our intensity to match the season or activity. Are you someone who visits a new place with the urge to “conquer” it? If you are, try adopting a more relaxed approach. Getting the most out of a trip or vacation doesn’t always mean that you have to do or see everything. Try to arrange things so that you get enough rest and recreation to go along with the “business” of sightseeing and soaking up the culture. One of the best ways to understand a new culture is the do what the locals do for fun.

Relaxation also means being “off the clock.” This is harder and harder to do now that technology allows us to be in touch with work from anywhere in the world at any time. Even if you need to stay in touch, limit yourself to checking in to only certain times of day. If you feel like you are constantly on a tether to the office you may as well not take a vacation at all. This is a strategy, by the way, that is recommended as a stress reliever at all times of the year. Checking your email constantly is associated with higher degrees of anxiety and stress. If you are constantly feeling like you need to be in touch, summer might be a good time to wean yourself from this habit.

All of the recommendations are things that you can carry over past your vacation. Establishing some healthy, relaxing habits now can help ensure that the rest of the year is as good as the summer usually is. Making an active “effort” to use your time off well now can have benefits throughout the year, and even for years to come.


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