Urban Dictionary jokingly defines it as a severe condition: Post Holiday Depression (PHD). “A general feeling of sadness and depression and hatred of all things work-related soon after a long holiday. Symptoms usually show at least four hours into the first work day after a holiday and can linger for up to a year until the next festive season.” Sounds familiar? We asked a psychologist why we suddenly doubt every life choice we have ever made after we come back from a holiday and what to do about it.
Steven Pont is a developmental psychologist and relational therapist. Although he spends most days giving lectures, workshops and trainings, he still works with patients from time to time. His insights on our psyche are a real reality check.
Detoxing from the grind
So what happens to us during a holiday that makes us come back so disjointed? On a holiday we break free from the patterns in our life. “Lots of people get sick the first week of their holiday because they are detoxing from the structures they have created for themselves.”
A holiday is a change of context and along with the context we change too. “We aren’t as tough as we believe we are. We think we are steady because we tell ourselves stories about who we are – narratives – and we hold onto those stories. Operating in a new context can unscrew our foundation.”
The promise of a holiday is that we move from the ordinary into the extraordinary, but a steep increase usually means a ruthless drop afterwards. “It is not a coincidence that most divorces are filed in September and right after Christmas holidays and the same goes for work.” We unlearn and detox, but we inevitably go back to our normal life that suddenly can appear to have lost importance or purpose. Many experience withdrawals upon return.
It is freedom, not money, beauty or intelligence that makes us happy, explains Steven. “Being able to steer your own life creates a feeling of happiness. And that is exactly what happens on a holiday. You can decide for yourself, but on Monday after your break decisions are made for you.” In other words, we feel good when we feel in control; when we are the captain of our own ship, instead of a passenger of a train that never stops.
To 180 or not to 180 – that is the question
Luckily there is another part to the happiness equation: besides chasing freedom we also want to feel connected. We want to commit to a partner, to work, to hobbies, to children and other life goals. The sweet spot is a delicate balance between connection and freedom. “Within commitment and connection we want to have enough space and autonomy to make our own decisions.” This also counts in the context of work. “People don’t mind being told what to do, but they don’t want to be told how to do it.”
So should we listen to that voice in our head tempting us to turn our life upside down upon return? If the dissatisfaction lasts, it’s a good idea to investigate what it stands for. “In life we are always either moving towards or moving away from things. If you find yourself sitting at the office wishing you were at your holiday destination again it is worth questioning your motivation. Do you want to go back because you love it there or because you don’t like it here?”
Curing only the symptoms isn’t a long-term fix. It is important to find out what causes the longing for another holiday. “You have to move away from being a victim to your circumstances and actively take matters into your own hands.” According to Steven there are two categories of change: change within the context or changing the context itself. Not everyone is able to change the context, because of obligations limiting their possibilities. “You can’t just say: hey kids, I am quitting my job and we’re moving into a tent.”
Reality check: the possibilities vary from maximal to optimal. Steven: “If you are in the position to change the context and everything is working out for you, you may find yourself living your maximal life. If you have two kids, a wife and a mortgage all you can do is attempt to reach the optimal situation, which will always be suboptimal in a way.”
His advice: if you don’t find a sense of purpose or autonomy in your work you can try to find it elsewhere. Talk to your boss to see if there is budget to do a course, go volunteering or take up a hobby. Face your truth, be realistic, tweak the things that are within your power to change. Don’t allow yourself to be a victim. Steer that ship of yours.