The Red & Black

Post-Vacation Fatigue — Why the Long Break Was Too Long


Studies suggest that shorter vacations are better for stress relief than longer ones. A Cornerstone study of 1,000 American workers found that respondents greatly preferred a three-day weekend to a one or two-week vacation, saying the long weekends allowed them to ease back into their work.

As far as longer vacations go, a 2010 Dutch study emphasized that the happiness from vacations is short-lived and independent of how many days are spent on vacation. Additionally, a Finnish study published in the Wall Street Journal uncovered that the optimal vacation length is eight days, with satisfaction from vacation steadily declining afterwards.

So why do people like shorter vacations? One aspect may be something called the “contrast effect,” where the effect of one mental stimulus is diminished or heightened after another mental stimulus. It’s what causes lukewarm water to feel cold after being in the heat. During vacations, our brains relish the spontaneity and self-control that comes with free time, and we produce increased levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters associated with happiness.

When we suddenly thrust ourselves back into a daily routine after a long vacation, our brains stop producing high levels of those neurotransmitters, forcing people to mentally re-adjust. According to NBC, fewer positive neurotransmitters causes heightened levels of stress due to the “contrast effect” caused by the sudden reappearance of routine life (in our case, school).

The greater the contrast, the more severe the effect, which may indicate that longer vacations result in harsher “vacation hangovers”. Similarly, it’s easy to form bad habits over vacation that become very difficult to break afterwards. During vacation, students can go to bed and wake up later, and go about their daily lives without any expectations.

These enjoyable behaviors also release small amounts of dopamine; the longer you do a pleasurable task, the more dopamine you release, and the harder it is to stop performing that task due to dopamine cravings. As a result, the bad habits that one forms over a long vacation are even harder to break than usual, making the re-adjustment to school even more difficult.

Outside of the vacation-to-school transition, school itself becomes harder after a long break due to a mini-version of the summer slide. While some students use vacation (summer or winter) to catch up on work, most students prefer to avoid studying. Without practicing their skills over a long time, students quickly forget much of the material they learned before break.

The longer the break, the more time students spend without practice, and the more students completely forget their derivative rules or the Battle of Hastings. With a longer break, students have even more difficulty picking up where they left off in school, resulting in a need for a longer transitional period, more cramming the subject matter later on, and more painful review sessions for midterms.

Invariably, the post-vacation blues and (extra) fatigue go away or weave into midterm stress, and students mindlessly return to their usually scheduled programming. Winter break has always been, and will always be, a welcome interruption in the humdrum of school, but it’s important to remember that too much of something isn’t necessarily a good thing.