By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/17/2010 10:05:27 AM ET 2010-08-17T14:05:27

It’s the middle of August. Do you know where your vacation is?

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If you’re like way too many of us, the answer is probably not. Between high airfares, high unemployment and high anxiety over the economy, it should come as no surprise that going on vacation has become a low priority for many Americans.

Well, after plowing through a slew of recent studies, I say it’s high time for a change.

Tallying time off: waste not, want not
Obviously, storming off the job à la Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who deplaned via emergency slide last week, isn’t the best way to pursue time off. Folk hero or not, the man stands a good chance of spending any accrued vacation time with the other guests at Club Fed.

Meanwhile, those who are still employed are working longer hours, doing more with less and accepting the idea that being seen every day is the only way to be seen as indispensable. Take that vacation, goes the logic, and it’ll likely become permanent during the next round of layoffs.

Little wonder, then, that many workers are not taking the vacation they’re entitled to. In fact, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll of approximately 12,500 workers in 24 countries, it was determined that only two-thirds of them took full advantage of the vacation time their employers provided.

The U.S. placed a dismal 20th, with just 57 percent of employees taking all of their allotted time off. Only four countries — South Korea, Australia, South Africa and Japan — fared worse, with the stereotypical salaryman of Japan bringing up the rear at 33 percent.

The most committed vacationers? According to the poll — and to the surprise of neither Francophobes nor Francophiles — that would be the French, 89 percent of whom said mais oui! when asked about using all of their vacation time. Make of that what you will, but clearly, surrendering is not an issue.

The numbers are even more depressing when you consider that U.S. workers get less vacation time than most of their counterparts to begin with and, again, fail to use the time they get. According to another recent study — this one by Expedia.co.uk — U.S. workers get an average of 17 days of vacation per year, but leave three of them on the table. In other words, we take an average of 82 percent of the vacation time we’re entitled to.

How’s that compare to the rest of the civilized world? Well, once again, we beat the Japanese, who forgo 55 percent of their vacation time (16.5 days allotted, 7.5 unused), and we’re on a par with the Aussies, who get more days (20), but also leave more (3.5) unused. Alas, we suck wind compared to the Germans, Norwegians and Danes, all of whom get at least 27 days and use all but two for a used/allotted percentage of 93 percent.

Perhaps that explains why the Gallup World Poll recently reported that Denmark is the happiest country in the world. Oh sure, a high standard of living, universal health care and excellent beer probably have something to do with it, but c’mon, 27 days of vacation? I’d be pretty happy, too.

Taking one for the team
Of course, it doesn’t take teams of researchers to realize that working too hard, forgoing vacation and, worst of all, working while on vacation, is bad for you. Depression, high blood pressure and heart attacks — the personal health risks of not taking time off from work are well-documented.

But employees who forgo time off may not be doing their companies any favors, either. Last fall, the Harvard Business Review released the results of a four-year study that showed employees of a local consulting company were actually more efficient, communicated better and provided improved services to their clients when they were forced to take time off.

Personally, I think they’re on to something, especially after reading yet another study, this one by Dutch researchers published earlier this year in the scientific journal Applied Research in Quality of Life. Their findings? Vacations may not make people happier, but planning them does.

In a nutshell, the researchers discovered that people going on vacation experienced heightened happiness levels for weeks and even months before heading out, but showed little or no comparable boost upon their return. Like sex, Christmas gifts and movie sequels, once again, the anticipation often trumps the reality.

What’s it all mean? Near as I can tell, it breaks down like this: Planning vacations makes people happier; taking time off can make their bosses and customers happier, and the happiest people around are those who truly take advantage of the vacation time they get.

Of course, I could have it all wrong, which is why I think further research is probably warranted. To that end, I’d just like to say that if there are any vacation/happiness/quality-of-life researchers out there in need of guinea pigs, I humbly volunteer.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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