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Why Holidays Shouldn't Be Relaxing

27th August 2015

As we know, there’s nothing more annoying than someone who suggests that we "calm down". Unfortunately, holidays are an entire period that institutionally commands that we “calm down” – and, furthermore, undertake another almost impossible quest: that of being happy.

After all, there’s no work to be done, the view on to the azure sea is perfect and this is meant to be the pleasant bit of existence. But all such expectations are fateful to our attempts to have a nice time – and therefore we must do everything we can to overcome the absurd belief that holidays can in any way be a time of constant delight.

Far from it, they should be enjoyed as periods of fascinating and educative new forms of misery: stress around packing, dealing with a tired child, explaining the loss of a car in a foreign language, visiting a pharmacy in a strange land to explain a stomach issue and finding a restaurant open after 10pm in Wiesbaden …

From the office, we tend to fantasise about two weeks in which we will no longer be quite ourselves; we picture ourselves as an implausibly other-worldly creature, unbothered by issues in relationships, fear of humiliation and longings. And yet the one person we can never leave behind is ourself and everything that makes us challenging to live with.

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Embrace travel struggles

We will therefore – even on the sun lounger – be grumpy, exhausted and worried about money. But we should embrace these struggles.

We should take inspiration from the tradition of the religious pilgrimage. For hundreds of years, before we started travelling for 'fun', we went on journeys to pay homage to God and saints.

We might travel for five months to touch the arm bones of St Apollonia, the patron saint of teeth, or touch the shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of marital problems (and, tellingly, lost causes). The point about pilgrimages is that they were deliberately uncomfortable.

Suffering and stress weren’t unforeseen obstacles, they were the whole point, for only by suffering could one turn over a new leaf. In a secular age, we should learn from this willing surrender to arduous travel.

The point of travel shouldn’t be constant bliss; it should be an encounter with interesting new disturbances of the soul. We should rediscover self-assertion by squabbling with public officials, rethink our lives by having midnight career crises and play havoc with our romantic lives by dancing with inappropriate people.

All of it will make our lives far more interesting than the so-called relaxing holiday, which is as rare as a unicorn and as dull, too. The single most important move in relation to travel is acceptance.

There is no need – on top of everything else – to be anxious that we are anxious about going away. We are far from the only ones to find travel difficult. Everyone finds trips more challenging than they are inclined to tell us.

We must, of course, learn to laugh about our anxieties – laughter being the exuberant expression of relief when a hitherto private agony is given a social formulation in a joke. Every traveller must suffer alone, but we can at least hold out our arms to our similarly tortured, fractured and, above all else, panicked fellow travellers, as if to say, in the kindest way possible: “I know …”

This article was written by Alain de Botton from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.