Psychology of Taking a Break

The Importance of Taking a Break

I’m happy to report that I’m taking a break. Things have been really crazy around here–finishing my PhD, getting married, preparing to start a job at a new university. I’d say that calls for a break! So I’m off on a short honeymoon, and I’m looking forward to unplugging from the world and just taking a moment to relax and put my brain in sleep mode.

Taking a Break and Mental Health

taking a breakIt might sound obvious, but research has documented the wonderful benefits that come from taking a break. One study surveyed almost 1,000 lawyers who were currently working at a law firm. These are people with incredibly busy schedules and enough of job-related to stress to last a lifetime. The lawyers in this study worked about 54 hours a week, on average.

This survey asked them a bunch of questions, including how much time they spend doing leisure activities (watching TV, going to the gym, etc.), how much time they take as vacation each year, and how much they work each week. The respondents also answered questions about their mental health–namely, symptoms of depression.

The results showed that the more time these people took for vacation in a year, the less depressed they were. Also, the more they participated in leisure activities, the less depressed they were. Interestingly, though, the benefits of leisure were highest for cases of “active leisure”–things like working out and going for walks. “Social leisure”–things like visiting family and going to dinner with friends–was also associated with less depression.

However, “passive leisure”–things like watching TV or reading books–wasn’t related to depression. It’s not that passive leisure was associated with more depression–just that it doesn’t seem to help or hurt one’s ability to cope with stress.

Taking a Break and Creativity

vacation03It’s also possible that taking a break can help boost your creative thinking. One recent study showed that taking a break helped people do better in a creative thinking activity, but only when that break consisted of a low effort activity. Simply resting or working on something difficult as a break didn’t affect creativity. The reason is that taking a break by doing a simple activity can lead to mind wandering. Think about when you drive in the car. You’re occupied by the activity, but it doesn’t demand a ton of second-to-second concentration, so your mind is free to wander.

The benefits of this mind wandering, though, were only there when people did the same creative thinking problem that they did earlier. For brand new problems, taking a break didn’t do much to help. This is likely because mind wandering helps people consolidate and integrate information that would be helpful for solving the problem.

My Turn for a Break

You might have noticed that this post is a bit shorter than usual. But that’s because I’m heeding the recommendations suggested by the available evidence…and taking a break. Maybe I’ll even take some pictures. See you next week when my pale skin returns bright red and burned. Where did I leave that sunscreen?

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