You don’t have to have a baby to reconnect with life’s simpler

pleasures–but that’s what it took for Mary Ellen Ynes, 41, of Foster City, Calif. For this high-powered public relation professional in Silicon Valley, life had become all about the job. But that ended when she and her husband adopted a little girl from Russia.

“It was a big turning point,” she says. Not only did the couple cut back on work to allow for more family fun, they also made it a priority to get some rest and recreation for themselves. Ynes started reserving an hour of “me time” most nights to read, as well as scheduling a couple of outings a month with girlfriends. She also began taking an annual vacation with her “Irish twin” (they’re 10 months apart), Bridget Ann Serchak, who lives in Arlington, Va.

Inspired by her sister, Serchak took steps to get a life outside her own hectic P.R. job. Now, she too makes more time for recreation, as well as connecting with others and volunteering. Once a month, she plays tourist in her own backyard by visiting a local museum or other attraction she’s rushed by many times before. Last year, the siblings spent a few days at a hot-air balloon festival in Albuquerque, N.M., and they can’t wait for this year’s “sister vacation” in Lake Tahoe. Both women say that their new lives have paid off immensely. “Even when life gets hectic I don’t let it get to me,” Ynes says, “because my priorities are in the right place now and I’ve never been happier.”

Regrettably, the sisters’ saga is far from common. Americans log more time at work than almost any other people in the developed world. According to the American Institute of Stress, employees in the U.S. spent 40 more hours on the job during the course of 2000 than they did in 1990. (Some government statistics show a slighter rise in hours worked for this period, but they don’t include little things like unpaid overtime!)

We also get less time off than workers do in other nations. Unlike many European countries where at least four weeks of vacation are required by law, American employers aren’t required to offer any vacation at all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we get an average of 10 days off after one year on the job and 14 days after five years. But in today’s tight economy, many of us don’t take vacations for fear of looking like a slacker. Either that, or we’re struggling with extra responsibilities inherited from colleagues who were laid off during downsizing.

“We live in a time when people are asked to do more with less,” explains Catherine Heaney, Ph.D., an associate professor of public health at Ohio State University. Add it all up and you have the formula for physical, mental and spiritual burnout.

the stress factor

If we rarely catch a break, our bodies end up in a chronic state of arousal. “We’re built for the fight-or-flight response to stress, but we’re also built to need time to recover from it,” says Heaney. “Doing without that lessens our ability to fight off disease and takes a toll on energy levels and vitality.”

Chronic stress leads to a range of debilitating conditions, such as fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness, anxiety, back pain, headache, stomach upset, depression, hypertension and heart disease.

“All work and no play makes us more than dull–it makes us dead,” declares Jerry May, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Nevada in Reno.

For the last 15 years, May has been studying a group of about 3,000 high-achievers in fields such as business, medicine, law, and athletics. He’s found that those who incorporate more play into their days aren’t just happier, they’re more productive, have higher self-esteem and less stress, and they sleep better, among other benefits.

the joy factor

You can start to add joy and minimize stress by doing what Ynes and her sister have done. Decide which people and activities are truly important to you. Make a list of your priorities, such as spending time with your partner, taking care of your health, traveling, following a passion or pursuing spiritual interests; then organize them into A, B and C categories, depending on their importance. You might be surprised when things you thought were important, like getting a promotion or buying more stuff, end up in the C category.

Now, you may not be able to quit your job so you can bake bread from scratch every day or cycle across Europe. But you can focus on your A-list and develop a plan to incorporate these pleasurable pursuits into your life. Keep in mind that “play time” doesn’t have to be a big event that’s linked into your day planner; spontaneity is often half the fun.

Even small doses add up. “We need to learn how to take little fun breaks,” May says. “I think it’s sad when a day goes away and you haven’t had some fun.” So spend time before dinner hanging out with the kids or a few minutes throughout the day joking with co-workers. If you’re faced with another meeting in a stuffy conference room, suggest a “walk and talk” session outside.

Finally, when you do take some of your hard-earned and much-needed vacation time, don’t leave a techno trail: Keep your laptop and pager at home and turn your cell phone off. You’ll survive, and so will your office. And that’s OK.