Summer Stress Syndrome

All year we look forward to leaving work behind and strolling down the boardwalk, laying out in the sun, sitting around cracking crabs and spitting out watermelon seeds for hours on end.

Ah...the sweetness of doing nothing. And sweet it is for about two or three days. But after the novelty wears off, many of us start getting restless, obsessing over personal problems or feeling guilty for not doing something productive.

Why? Because we don't know how to relax. Studies measuring the quality of leisure time reveal that people are not having as much fun when they leave the office as everybody thinks, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Finding Flow"(Basic Books, 1997) and professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, California.

People, he found, were more satisfied when focusing on work than when drifting along with no plans during their "free time." When people were at work, he says, they reported being "creative and alert and experience satisfaction because they were confronted with challenges and had to use their skills."

Once they left work, however, their motivation plummeted. They reported feeling passive and dull while engaged in activities many might think are relaxing, like watching TV or eating out.

Most people, he said, would find vacations more stimulating, meaningful and relaxing if they invested energy in pursuing hobbies that kept their interests aroused, their mind focused—and their brains from frying. Relaxation, he said, is a state of mind that can be achieved anywhere.

Doing Nothing Is Not Relaxing

Csikszentmihalyi says that people feel the best when they are engaged in an activity or thought. "It could be learning to play tennis, reading three books you think are important or getting closer to your children. The best type of relaxation is one where you are doing something that requires a skill and involvement different from what you do in other settings."