The joy of living in the Travel Moment

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Crunching through the brush of Zimbabwe's Zambezi National Park, I was jolted by a sound alien to my Angeleno ears — the loudness of stillness. Minus the usual din, I could pick out birdsong by the beak, rustling branches by the tree and an assortment of distant snorts whose owners were less clear. Every step I took behind a pack of elephants set off a grenade of exploding leaves and twigs in the dry bush.

I followed the tuskers to the edge of the Zambezi River. Crouching behind a thornbush, I suddenly had a front-row seat to a pachyderm party. As a column of moms, juniors and javelin-toothed jumbos neared the waterline, each would first bob its head, flapping huge, veiny ears, then kick up a knee, twirl a foot and back-step in a rubbery soft-shoe. These lumbering leadfoots were dancing, breaking it down as if they were soloing in the "Soul Train" line. I learned later that their moves are a ritual of ecstasy. The prospect of a bath sets off "happy feet."

It touched off some dancing of my own, as my synapses mamboed to the serotonin of discovery. I had glimpsed something "closer to the beginning of things," as Graham Greene once put it — and got a 6-ton lesson in the universal joys of rub-a-dubbing.

I was so engrossed that I forgot I wasn't being productive. In a society that attaches all value to output, I was languishing in the shirker's realm of input, the vacation. I wasn't getting a single thing done. Unless you count living an accomplishment.

Not everyone does in this era of compulsive overperformers. Donald Trump likes to boast that he never takes a vacation. On an episode of the CNN show "Crossfire" that debated my proposal for a minimum-paid-leave law, co-host Robert Novak said, "I don't take vacations. I don't like vacations. I don't need vacations."

The proposed legislation — a key plank of the national Take Back Your Time campaign, a coalition of grass-roots work-family groups (time day.org) — would establish a minimum of three weeks' vacation time, which is what Chinese citizens get. Unlike the U.S., 96 countries have statutory protection for vacation leave.

Without it, vacations are vanishing. A survey last year by the AFL-CIO found that more than a quarter of American men get no paid vacation; nearly a third of working women don't. For many more, vacations are being stalled, canceled and abbreviated as workweeks soar to lengths not seen since the 1920s.

Trump, Novak and the workaholic culture that created them would like us to believe that vacations are for wimps, that they're the end of productivity as we know it, that a few days off are a ticket to instant vagrancy — "Lazy is as lazy does," Novak said — that you'll miss something apocalyptic (like e-mail!) while you're gone.

But that's exactly backward: You're missing much more if you don't take a vacation.

"Vacations allow us to keep our lives in perspective during our working years," says Dr. Jennifer Ellis, a cardiac surgeon at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., who sees many patients who haven't taken a vacation in years. "Plus it's fun. That's when you should meet your kids and family."

Vacations are not a frill but a necessity for a well-balanced life, as important to your health as watching cholesterol levels or getting exercise. And far from killing productivity, research shows that job performance actually increases after time off. Vacations can produce big payoffs, starting with the ability to vaporize one of the scourges of the age: stress.

More than two dozen studies have linked job stress with heart disease, a connection that explains why a workaholic will die before an alcoholic. "Stress causes five times the amount of premature heart disease before the age of 55," Ellis says.

Chronic stress sets off a flood of adrenaline that makes organs work overtime — even when you're sleeping — which can lead to hardening of the arteries, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel disease. Job-related stress costs businesses $150 billion a year, and Americans spend billions more on drugs.

But the antidote is free. Time off is medicine. An annual vacation can cut the risk of death from heart disease in men by 32% and in women by 50%.

"Job stress is a continuous stress, Monday through Friday, and most people aren't able to separate that when they get home, so it ends up being a seven-day-a-week stress," Ellis notes. "That's why vacations are important. Your adrenaline levels drop, your cortisol levels normalize."

Bruce Spring, who teaches clinical psychiatry at USC's Keck School of Medicine, says a break "stops further agitation and stress to the system."

"There's time to tidy up the inner house, decompress, catch up on sleep," Spring says. "It's a shift in perspective, a chance to see that these problems that seem so giant aren't so giant."

The treatment works even for the most intractable form of stress: burnout, which guts all coping mechanisms. "The result is lowered productivity, shame, doubt, cynicism, confusion, the feeling of having nothing left to give," says Mark Gorkin, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.

Vacations have been shown to re-gather emotional resources crashed by burnout, but it takes two weeks for that to occur, one of many reasons not to shorten your holiday. Long weekends can't provide the same recuperative benefits of an extended break.

But, of course, taking a vacation does feel kind of wimpy. It violates the deeply rooted idea that we need to get something done every waking moment to measure up to productive citizenry.

"The belief system is that I have to perform to be OK," says Dr. Steven Sultanoff, a psychologist in Irvine. "And if I'm not doing, performing, accomplishing some visible task, then I lose my value. People who [feel] that real strongly have a difficult time taking vacations."

Fear, guilt and competitive pressure make us think that there's too much work to get away, that we'll be pathetic slackers, that it's heroic to have less of a life than the next person.

"Leisurephobia," the irrational fear of free time, started with our original taskmasters, the Puritans and Calvinists, whose killjoy mind-set — the acceptance of life as a task, a belief that work is an end in itself, the avoidance of spontaneous enjoyment — morphed into the secular life-denial we know and love today. When a moment of nonwork arrives, there's the antsiness, the guilt, then the panic to find something, anything to do.

If we are what we do, then not doing is to be nothing. Unlike in other cultures, where people tend to define themselves through family, region and social outlets, in our young, rootless land, "most Americans labor to consume and construct the self," says Mark Liechty, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

But it's all a bad case of mistaken identity. We are not hard drives with hair. We don't live by output alone. Output can't measure quality of life, which requires input, the actual experience of living. That's where vacations and travel come in. They connect us with family, friends, passions, adventure, wonder, play — things that eclipse performance in the ultimate outcome category: happiness.

A new study by Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College in Illinois, shows that, as work hours go up and leisure time down, life satisfaction and vitality nosedive while health problems and negative emotions increase. Leisure promotes well-being because it builds lasting internal self-worth not dependent on the external approval of others, the mother's milk of output. Increased levels of performance don't equate to increased happiness, because as soon as one goal is achieved, the next one appears, keeping us chasing tomorrow's tail, and absent from our own lives. Vacations spring us from the hamster wheel, to taste today for its own sake.

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Total freedom The Latin root of the word "vacation" means freedom, and that's what a great holiday delivers for me — complete liberation to the experience. Instead of having one eye on where it's all leading, I can live fully inside my own time — explore, savor, learn, risk without a productive nag.

Because travel strips away the home front's rigid social code, I'm freed of expectations, judgments, agendas, comfort zones — all the albatrosses that rob me of the present tense. I can immerse into the ride in lingering detail — hearing Force-10 fado in a Lisbon cafe, feeling the baby skin of pink dolphins brushing past me on an Amazon swim, thrilling to a Vulcan mind-meld with a German couple in a tiny Belizean tavern.

I've come to know this realm of rapturous engagement as the Travel Moment, a heady zone where time opens up, horizons fall away and I'm charged with the juice of the journey.

These are the times when life is at its most satisfying, says author and social psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi, because direct experience gives us a sense of "determining life content," something we don't always get in cubicle country.

No wonder leisure experiences have been found to increase self-initiative, mastery and risk-taking. Vacations are insurance that we don't phone it in, laying down markers that prevent one year of droning PCs from blending into the next.

Lots of Travel Moments have taught me that there is a place where I can stop worrying about where I'm going and actually arrive. All I have to do is follow the dancing elephants. As philosopher Alan Watts once said, our brief stint on this planet is "a dance, and when you are dancing, you are not intent on getting somewhere."

You are there.

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Joe Robinson is author of "Work to Live."

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