Why It’s So Good to Unplug
Howard E. A. Tinsley, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University and a member of the American Psychological Association, has studied the psychological effects of leisure for decades. “There is definitely a strong association between actively participating in leisure and physical and mental health,” he says.
If you’re ready for an unplugged family vacation, here are some benefits you might experience:
1. You’ll have more of a say in how you spend your time.
Psychologists call this “freedom of choice,” and it’s central to the experience of leisure. It sounds simple, but technology often takes away this freedom: App notifications prompt us to perform unplanned tasks all the time, and the inner struggle becomes real. Maybe a neighbor tags you in an interesting conversation on social media, and you think, “Well, I should at least acknowledge seeing the post.” Or your favorite store emails about its best sale of the season, and you think, “Those are good prices, I’ll just place a quick order.”
Though these are minor interactions, do you want to spend your vacation in a series of tasks determined by others? With technology out of the picture, you’re free to do only what you set out to do in each moment.
2. You can spend your time on activities you truly enjoy.
Doing things because you’re naturally interested in them — rather than feeling compelled to do them — is a hallmark of true relaxation. In terms of mental health, this is called intrinsic (or internal) motivation.
When we stay connected via our digital devices, it’s easy to get roped into other obligations — work or personal — regardless of how satisfying they are. So, while you might freely choose to use vacation time to fulfill an obligation via technology, you aren’t necessarily enjoying it. Sure, technology makes it quick and convenient to review your co-worker’s presentation or send your friend that recipe, but consider what more-satisfying activity you could have enjoyed in those moments, like going on a hike or hunting for seashells with your family.
3. You can use competition to feel better, not worse.
Many people fall victim to competition, or “keeping up with the Joneses,” when it comes to vacation experiences, Tinsley says. By finding things to do without social media, you might be less susceptible to comparing the quality of other people’s leisure time with your own.
Plus, the natural urge to compete can be used to your family’s advantage on vacation. When it’s funneled into an enjoyable activity, competition can promote a sense of accomplishment, Tinsley says. To reap the benefits, organize a family volleyball game or bowling outing. Intellectual competition — such as playing board games or card games — works, too. Even games you play in the car have elements of competition that can enrich a family vacation.
4. You can determine exactly how long to keep doing an activity.
Are your kids loving the science museum? Stay a bit longer. Is it too windy at the beach? Cut out early. Tinsley calls this concept “optimal arousal,” explaining that in a true leisure state, you can keep doing an activity as much as you want and stop as soon as you’re over it. “You can participate in something to the extent that it’s optimally satisfying,” he says.
Without the distraction of digital devices, you’ll be in tune with the family vibe and can monitor and respond to everyone’s feelings accordingly. No unexpected notifications pulling you away from an activity you’re enjoying. No quick email checks that morph into answering messages for longer than you’d like (get tips for setting up a clear and effective out-of-office message here).
5. You’ll have better conversations with your loved ones.
Simply having a mobile device around might lessen the chance of having meaningful conversations, according to a 2014 study in the journal Environment and Behavior. Researchers found that when a mobile device was out of sight, participants experienced higher levels of empathy in conversation. For parents looking to genuinely reconnect with their children on vacation, this takes commitment from every family member: Put down the phone, look into their eyes and have a good talk you all might remember forever.