It’s hard to know when we’re thinking about taking a vacation, how long we should take off to feel the most refreshed, particularly if we travel. Obviously it depends on your work, finances, and how you choose to spend your time but scientists do have an idea; and it’s slightly more than one week.
A seminal 2012 study published in the aptly-titled Journal of Happiness Studies reports that for most vacationers they studied, the impact on health and well-being peaked around day eight and that these feelings return to baseline after one week back at work (even for a long holiday of three weeks or more).
Jessica de Bloom, one of the study’s researchers, told The Washington Post in 2024 that it is a very difficult thing to measure, as you cannot randomly assign people to a vacation and study it statistically—everyone is different and relaxes in different ways. However, even when measuring longer holidays, the feelings of health and well-being peaked around the eighth day.
Ondrej Mitas, a researcher and senior lecturer specializing in tourist experiences that focus on well-being and quality of life at Breda University told The Washington Post that the sweet spot is not too long, where experiences begin to feel normalized, and not too short, where you don’t have enough time to disconnect.
For anyone considering taking a trip, January is usually the time of year when we think about when to take vacations and in what groupings. You might like to save a big chunk for a longer summer vacation, but leave it too late, and you’ll feel battered by the time it arrives. Use the days too early, and it can be psychologically difficult to get through the rest of the year. This research, still heavily referenced, does suggest that the ideal way to split vacations and time off might be by weeks (or slightly longer, taking ten days for a long-haul trip allowing travel days on either side).
While it might be standard for anyone on a full-time contract in Europe to have around 25 days or more of paid annual leave, workers in the U.S. have considerably less. Forbes reports that 28 millions Americans do not have any paid time off and 2022 data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, reports that non-governmental employees earn 11 to 20 days of paid vacation time, based on years of service.
Americans used to take more holiday. The U.S. Travel Association reports that between 1978 and 2000, the average number of paid days off used was 20.3 per year. By 2018, 52% of employees said they work a little while on holiday (answering emails and joining conference calls) and a staggering 765 million vacation days went unused. Post-pandemic, with more people able to work remotely and the rise of so-called bleisure travel, the boundaries between work and home life have never been more blurred.
Regardless of how many days you can take, it pays to maximize your vacation days by planning them strategically at the beginning of the year to coincide with public holidays—if one falls on a Thursday, take the Friday off to do what the French call, faire le pont by “making a bridge” to the weekend.