Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Warning: Holidays may be Bad for Your (Mental) Health

I have just returned to this desk following a few days’ leave. Leave? Why is it called ‘leave’? A ‘few days off’? A holiday?

I was looking forward to my holiday; I’d been working hard, and I needed a rest. I was looking forward to a few days in which I would sleep more, eat more, play with my children, read a novel, get some fresh air, go for a walk. And so it proved: I had a lovely time with my family, and I find myself refreshed.

But there’s a but. And the but started with a dinnertime critique from my elder teenage son, who espoused the view that holidays were, in effect, a bad thing; or, perhaps more accurately, a symptom of a bad thing. I listened hard to his analysis, not least because only a few years ago I had heard a similar message from a very different source: the chief physician at a London teaching hospital, a wise and honourable man with whom I am lucky enough to have become friends.

My now-retired doctor friend reacted with aghast sympathy when, these few years ago, I told him that I was knackered and that I was really looking forward to my (summer) holiday where I intended doing as close to nothing as possible for as long as possible. He wondered whether it was entirely healthy to spend so many weeks or months working quite so hard. He wondered whether it wasn’t a sign that my life was somewhat out of kilter. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, to not be needing such an extreme rest.

Which is pretty much the point my son made. If you were doing something you really enjoyed, he argued, you wouldn’t want to “have a holiday”, you’d want to carry on doing it. You’d integrate your rest and recuperation into your day to day life, not exhaust yourself so much that every few weeks you have to get away from it all. How can you do your best stuff if you’re perpetually on the verge of becoming knackered again?

There’s a separate thread, for another time, on why you might want to do your best stuff, but for now, and for a few more moments, I want to stick to holidays. Because not only do I agree with the perspective offered from either end of a modern working life, but a re-casting of ‘holiday’, even ‘leisure’, is central to the proposition of an economy of enough.

From a Marxist perspective, for example, leisure and holidays are merely elements in the process known as the reproduction of labour power. Capitalism can only function if the workers are sufficiently awake and well-fed and from time to time refreshed – a factor acknowledged not just by Marxists, but by weapons-grade capitalists like Henry Ford, too. Holidays are not given you because the capitalists love you, and they are not given simply because organised trade unionised labour power fought successfully on your behalf – they are given because they are a useful way of maintaining your productivity over the medium and longer term.

The problem with the Marxist analysis, however, is/was that it relied on a collective resolution, a collective consciousness, that simply doesn’t materialise in atomised contemporary consumer capitalism. It’s my holiday, my entitlement, and I am free to spend it how I wish. We simply don’t conceive of our holidays as in any way a collective thing, despite the fact that great herds of us travel together to the same destinations, irrespective of whether those destinations are allegedly popular or ‘out of the way’.

What is it we’re getting away from? Are holidays simply another form of modern escapism, up there with alcohol and recreational drugs and mystical faith, a symptom of the fact that normal, everyday life, is just not good enough? If we could fix the everyday, would we really need ever more intense holiday hits?

Some of the answers are being explored by people like Carl Honoré (“In Praise of Slow” -
http://www.carlhonore.com/) and Tom Hodgkinson (“How to be Idle” and editor of The Idler - http://idler.co.uk/), but mainstream politics and economics finds these kinds of approaches far too scary at the moment. Good god, could you imagine what would happen if everyone were to start chilling out a bit more, kicking back and running around a little less - – not some faux sixties drop-out vibe, just a developing sense that, no thanks, I’ve had enough? I’m not going to work harder to earn that extra pound so that I can have a slightly more turbo-powered hi-fi/holiday next year, I’m going to get just a little slack. Gosh, what would happen to ‘consumer spending’ and ‘gross national product’ and ‘productivity’?

We’d have a terrible recession and everything would be awful… Or, would we start being a little happier, or more contented, or a little freer to do things that we wanted rather than things that they wanted? Could we have an economy of enough rather than an economy of more?

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