By Katherine Olivetti

working at play book cover

In a discussion of the history of vacations, host, Robert Siegel of NPR interviewed author Cindy Aron, author of  Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States.

Siegel said, “Until the middle of the 19th century, Americans used the word vacation the way the English do, the time when teachers and students vacate the school premises and go off on their own. In those days, a vacation was also a mark of privilege. Over time, the vacation became a middle class institution, as well as a time for physical, mental and spiritual self-improvement, not to mention sheer entertainment.”

Perhaps because a vacation was a respite from ordinary, regular activity vacation came to be associated with health, renewal, and other positive states that supported wellbeing for individuals.  Even the etymology of the word carries a positive valence.  Deriving from the Latin vacatio the word means freedom, exemption, immunity from service, and privilege.

No wonder we all long for a vacation, and especially after a hard won project or career—a LOOOONG vacation!

vacation on a beach

Pauses for respite and renewal are periods we all need.  Many hard workers look to “retirement” as the long deserved and permanent vacation they earned.  Most folks prepare for this event well before it happens:  they join a golf club, or buy a boat, or add a huge flat screen TV to the family room, and almost everyone sets aside enough financial resources to assure a standard of living.

on the couch

Unfortunately prolonged leisure is not one of the key factors associated with longevity. Staying active is a key factor.  Dr. Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School assures you that the trick is to find a balance of activities that draw you in and stretch you out. He says, “We grow and keep our brains alive by being engaged with things that challenge us.”

A certain amount of stress is good for you.  After years of teaching yoga, meditation, and stress is goodways to reduce stress, psychologist, author, and well-known Stanford University teacher Kelly McGonigal has revised her ideas about stress in her book (which I highly recommend).


Situations that provide the right kind of stress are what you need to construct when you’re thinking about retiring or devising the next wonderful chapter in your life.  Dr. Miller describes what to look for perfectly.  He says, “The sweet spot is the stuff that’s just outside your reach, where you have to work and concentrate.”


So give yourself well earned pauses, but make sure that over longer periods of time, if you want to increase your wellbeing and longevity, you find that sweet spot where challenge is just enough to keep you on your growing edge.

Life Reinspired offers guidance and support for life transitions. Come participate with us in our workshops and programs to support and help guide you on this journey.

Katherine Olivetti is Co-Founder of Life Reinspired, a reset lab for successful Baby Boomers contemplating a meaningful next chapter of life. She is a practicing Jungian psychoanalyst, family therapist, coach, writer, and editor, training professionals throughout the world.