Ahhh, summer. Time to goof off. There's only one catch. It's not goofing off if you take it too seriously. But taking vacations seriously is exactly what we Americans seem to do. In the same way our kids' free time is now packed with activities, we grownups have turned vacations into "active leisure." Anytime you exhaust yourself trying to relax, that's active leisure. Our vacations come with an agenda, a purpose. We're visiting family, attending weddings, going camping, checking out that darn museum and making sure we ride that roller coaster--no matter how long the line is. We Americans are so active in our leisure that we commonly complain we need a vacation from our vacations. We leave home tired; we come back exhausted.
That's why many of us have decided not to go. Americans are allotted few vacation days (14 days, on average) compared with other industrialized countries, but ironically, we don't even use them. The average American will leave four vacation days on the table this year, which adds up to a whopping 574 million days of untaken vacation, collectively. Our relationship to relaxation seems contradictory. We spend more money than anyone else in the world on leisure--fully one-third of our income--and yet we are simultaneously No. 1 in the world at not taking vacations.
One of the top reasons given for not taking a vacation is that it's too much extra work. We have to get ahead of our workload in order to leave, and then we have to catch up on our workload upon our return. The longer the vacation we take, the bigger the stumbling blocks appear. So only 14% of Americans will take a vacation two weeks or longer this summer. Bottom line: it's simply become too stressful to relax.
We Americans take our time off so seriously that you can now get a Ph.D. in leisure studies at Penn State and 17 other renowned universities. That's right--a doctorate, not just a bachelor's. It's such an up-and-coming field in academe that there is an actual shortage of qualified educators. We don't have enough people to teach leisure. I am tempted to make a joke about this, but I don't want to incur the wrath of the leisure scientists. They'll beat me up with lawn chairs.
There's no doubt that work has found its way into every hour of our day, thanks to beepers, cell phones and e-mail. Our lunch hours aren't even close to an hour; they average only 31 min. That's down 5 min. in 10 years. But fear not. We're getting our secret revenge. We've discovered a method to goof off despite it all. How? We seem to be stealing ever more bits of free time throughout the day.
For instance, surveys in recent years have concluded that the average American office worker "goofs off" for just over two hours a day--and that's not counting lunches or breaks. One hundred twenty-six minutes a day, to be exact. What do we do with this stolen time? "Spacing out" is a common poll response. Gossiping with co-workers is obviously popular. Surfing the Internet tops them all.
We might even prefer these brief snippets of "stolen time" to the long stretches of authorized vacation. We find it more fun--and more satisfying--to goof off when we're supposed to be working or running errands. It's our way of getting even. This subversive element is what makes the time stolen more pleasurable.