You’ve got everything organised. You’ve booked a great villa, campsite or AirBnB room. You’ve researched the places you want to visit. You’ve bought a new swimsuit, packed up a great selection of books, not forgotten the suntan lotion. But there is something missing, and you only realise when you’ve arrived. You don’t know how to relax when you’re on holiday.
I’ve had this problem for years. I can’t seem to let go of the work responsibilities, but that’s not all. I’m also rooted in the Facebook world, and Twitter, thrumming with the Trump/North Korean spat at the time. And then there’s the call of WhatsApp even if its all about the dog walking shenanigans hundreds of miles from my Croatian island idyll.
Well, this year I decided was going to be different. For the first time in many years, I didn’t take my laptop. We were going for a week, and I have a small team to run welldoing.org in my absence. I also determined to sharply restrict my smartphone use; sometimes it stayed in the hotel room, or at least could only be found at the very bottom of my beach bag.
I made a conscious decision not to entertain myself at every juncture. Sometimes just sitting beside the sea was the perfect way to appreciate my surroundings, the cry of the birds, the heat of the sun (though I hasten to add that I didn’t stay out in the middle of the day). Other times, I wandered through the marble streets of a local town, but without any destination, and not looking for souvenirs or clothes, just floating on by.
I read, but lightly, and without pressure. The fiction focused on families (Katherine Heiny’s funny and touching Standard Deviation and Elizabeth Taylor’s classy In a Summer Season) but also Modern Mindfulness by Rohan Gunatillake, a book that promises to teach you “how to be more relaxed, focused and kind while living in a fast, digital always on world”. I didn’t get very far with that one; in some ways, not reading, not doing anything was the most mindful thing to do.
Because it was just my husband and me, I felt few social obligations. We spent some time finding a few delicious things to eat at our AirBnB, but we largely ate in simple cafes and restaurants. What I did in the way of "housework", I was happy to do. Otherwise, my time was really my own, without any tug to see what others were up to, or try to engage them with my filtered shots of cappuccino or a glass of rose.
When I got back to the UK I read an Atlantic monthly piece by psychology professor Jean Twenge about the effect of smartphone usage on teens. Specifically “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy”.
What counts for teens is also true for adults. It wasn’t enough to leave home and work and my familiar surroundings and stay for seven nights in Croatia. I also had to disengage from my iPhone. And it worked. My pre-occupation with what it could produce —- emails, updates, gossip, news — could get perilously close to addiction. But without it, the tension melted away. I felt relaxed, and I felt truly, honestly happy in my own skin.