If you are of a certain age, a certain state of mind, then the chances are good you once picked up a best seller called “The Relaxation Response.” In a trendy ’70s sort of way, the book inspired a generation of harried people to learn how to turn down the stress in their lives.
A quarter-century later, the technique developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School is easily lampooned. A popular commercial shows a group of meditators trying to “visualize” in order to evoke a relaxation response – until they are distracted by the prospect of online stock trading.
That commercial for the Ameritrade company is a perfect metaphor for these times in America. Who has time to relax – to kick back and read a good book – when there’s money to be made? But it turns out that Benson’s theories are especially relevant as a stressed-out nation weighs the benefits of heading to beaches, lakes and mountains, the latest best seller in tow.
Several studies, including one based on data from the famous heart study in Framingham, Mass., have found that women who vacation have a significantly lower risk of death. Separately, a survey by the State University of New York-Oswego found that regular vacation-goers had a 17 percent lower risk of death among men aged 35 to 57. This is either because vacations reduce heart problems, or because people with heart problems don’t take vacations.
It’s the act of de-stressing, of experiencing true relaxation, that researchers say is beneficial. Indeed, even Benson’s thinking has broadened to include a more, well, relaxed definition of what is required. No need to sit still and meditate, he says. You can “evoke the response,” as Benson puts it, by doing anything from sitting at the beach reading a summer novel – the sounds of waves substitute for the repetition of the word – to pedaling a bicycle to hitting a tennis ball. It is all in the repetition, the repetition, the repetition …
The problem is, many Americans don’t take all of their relatively meager vacation time. Indeed, even Elaine Eaker, an epidemiologist who analyzed the Framingham Heart Study data and concluded that vacations are vital, acknowledged that she hasn’t taken a vacation in three years.
“I’ve been too busy running my own company,” she says, emphasizing that she loves her work.
She is hardly alone. A survey this year by Connecticut-based Oxford Health Plans found that one in six employed Americans is so overworked that he or she doesn’t use up annual vacation time.
“People need to start thinking of vacation as preventive medicine,” says Dr. Alan Muney, Oxford’s chief medical officer (who says he does take all his vacation time).
The survey noted that companies in the United States offer the least vacation time in the industrialized world. For example, Italians have an average of 42 vacations days, the French get 37, and the Germans 35.
Americans typically get 13 days – and even that is often not used to maximum health benefit.
“It is almost a point of pride that Americans are so stressed that you have to buy a book to figure out how to relax,” says Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publisher’s Weekly.
Beach reading, Rawlinson says, isn’t what it used to be. In recent years, business books have been hot beach sellers, as workaholics try to get an edge even as they try to get away from it all. Similarly, religion books have become popular beach reads. A study by Publisher’s Weekly is revealing: People under age 44 were enthusiastic buyers of self-help books, while those over 44 preferred books about religion.
Escapism is, of course, a form of relaxation. Rawlinson reads Edith Wharton at the beach because it is so far removed from the many books she reads for her job. Many others read history or “`trashy” novels.
And many of those who do go on vacation can’t seem to get their minds off their work, despite the clear physical and mental benefits of detaching from the workaday world.
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, a Manhattan psychiatrist who runs a consulting firm called WorkPsych Associates, often interviews executives who are climbing the career ladder. If an executive claims that he or she is so involved in work that vacations are unnecessary or uncomfortable, Kahn views it like the proverbial red flag raised on the beach during stormy weather.
Kahn sees a direct relationship between the workaholic “Type A” personality people who can’t relax or reflect, and the risk of career burnout or later onset of heart disease. He found, for example, during a study of medical students that the ones most irritable and least able to relax were the most likely to have suggestions of developing heart disease.
To Kahn, the art of relaxation is not merely lounging at the beach, but also includes the ability to celebrate small and large achievements.
“One of the most common ways that people celebrate is by vacation,” Kahn says.
He relates the story of a client who worked many days on a business problem without success. The client’s family insisted he not dwell on work during the vacation. After returning from vacation, the client came up with a solution to the problem because his mind was much clearer, Kahn says.
It may sound obvious, but it is the stuff of which many best sellers have been made, including volumes such as “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and It’s All Small Stuff.” Indeed, The New York Times, which for years has divided its best seller list into fiction and nonfiction, now has a category called “Advice,” which often includes books about simplifying and de-stressing our lives.
To Benson, father of the “Relaxation Response,” the trick is to “break the train of everyday thought that often drives you up a wall, such as finances, family, deadlines,” he says. Stress is good up to a point, motivating people to finish a project or reach a goal. But at a certain point, the amount of stress becomes an overload, which can cause medical or psychological problems, he says.
How do you know when you have broken the stress chain? Experts say it is the difference between reading an engrossing novel that makes you forget what time it is, and reading the same few paragraphs repeatedly without absorbing the meaning. If you have done the former, you probably are evoking Benson’s relaxation (or vacation) response; if you have done the latter, your mind is not on vacation, even if your body is.
One of the most interesting experiments conducted by Benson shows that even a good workout can evoke relaxation. In the experiment, Benson’s subjects were instructed to ride a bicycle machine at a fast pace. Before and after the experiment, they were given a certain task to perform during which oxygen intake was measured. After the bicycle workout and a brief rest, the average oxygen intake during the task was reduced 11 percent compared to prior to the workout. In other words, a workout interlude created a profound relaxation. The same typically would be true if a person prayed or sat by the beach, Benson says.
“The body that is more rested,” Benson concludes, “is more efficient.”
So, take that vacation time. Sit by the beach and crack open a good book. Doctor’s orders.
(The Boston Globe Web site is at
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in 2001, but we thought the information in it was timely and relevant for 2009.