Travel, Sleep, Repeat

I understand why we sleep. To slip the knot of the world.

Rachel Kadish, The Weight Of Ink

I’ve had several conversations at work today about what a difference taking the last week off makes, and what a double-difference it makes when it’s coupled with the thrill of other people in the company taking this week off instead.

End result: even now that we’ve come back, we don’t feel like we’re really “back to work”, because “back to work” means having urgent, panicked, irritated, stressed requests coming our way. Instead, we get maybe one email an hour, sent almost as an after-thought since the sender is half-convinced you’re one of the group of people that was off this week rather than last.

Then when you do actually give that email a reply, your reply is uber-fast, because you are totally refreshed from your week off, and oh-so-productive-and-speedy about it because you don’t have much else to do. The lucky sender is then both shocked and intensely grateful — an actual response is like a bonus wish from the genie bottle, and you’re the genie.

It’s a magical time.

All of these chats have my mind circling back to its usual pondering, of course: what about if we had been able to actually travel during that week? Would we be feeling even better right now, or was the fact that we stayed home actually a boon for us?

No way, said my brain (without bothering to look at any actual data). Wandering for the win!

Enter my usual first-stop for developing a theory: myself. Crappy traveling companions aside, my mental state when I’m on a journey is almost always markedly more “chill” than my day-to-day. Everything feels so simple. No wrong turn is an error, no misstep is a regret. Not mine, and not anyone else’s. I never have so much patience, kindness, compassion, and good humor as when I’m away from home.

Put simply: my wandering self is my best self.

Granted, I haven’t actually bothered to explore whether there’s any data to support my claim. And data is my absolute favorite treat — after cheesecake, of course. So it seems like a fine time to remedy that.

There are so many aspects of being bounced to new heights as a result of travel, and I’m itching to go through absolutely all of them (like, right now!!), but I am back at work now and do have a few projects to get done today … so I’ve forced myself to narrow down one topic at a time. And since I’m feeling a little grumpy at the hour that my alarm clock has gone off the past two days, it makes sense to start with Morpheus, aka, The Lord of Dreams, aka, sleep.

I’ve long been a student of the joy of travel (Exhibit A: this blog) and the art of sleep (I humbly suggest Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth and the Somnology episode of Ologies by Alie Ward, for a fantastic exploration of so many exciting morsels of snoozy goodness), but I haven’t ever sat down to identify how the one affects the other. I’ve been privy to a lot of information out there about things like direction-specific jet lag, how poor time zone adjustment is connected to mental illness, and why sleep is sometimes easier on couches than beds, but what about the happy juices that happen to us when we have some intentional time away from our own bedrooms? Do we ultimately (after the First Night Effect) sleep better — because our brains feel more balanced, our stresses are reduced, we’re moving around outdoors more, and our alarm clocks are set for a time and place of our choosing?

Google search says: of course we do!

Being in a new, exciting-yet-relaxing place (aka, vacation) manipulates your brain to re-establish contented circadian rhythms that are otherwise tossed to and fro by the various associations to “bad stuff” that we make when we’re running our home base. When we’re home, there’s nothing new to explore, so we don’t get outside and exercise. We have meals to make, email to check, and a a house to clean, which brings us stress. And if you struggle with drifting off at a reasonable hour, there’s that same old bed which represents that same old battle with that same old internal monologue about how you really should have turned off that same old TV a few hours ago.

Vacation raises a big, beautiful, boisterous middle finger to all of those obstacles, and wraps us in a cuddly, warm hug of a restful night.

And was the wording of my Google search influenced by my own cognitive bias and desire for the answer to the question to support my desired angle? Of course it was!

Take this article, one of many which hint at how as much as 80% of people who travel have trouble sleeping while away from home, largely attributed to uncomfortable beds, waking up at every strange sound coming from hotel hallways and nearby unfamiliar streets, and consuming too much salt and alcohol (which are notorious waker-uppers).

Well, crap. So much for my broad, universal theory of life, the universe, and everything travel-sleepy.

But then again, they did say 80%. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’m in the minority on something, and I’m perfectly all right with being there — and if it comes with a little more capacity to experience bliss (a la a good night’s rest), all the better.

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