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Summer's a Time to Relax. Except Hardly Anyone Does

For some people somewhere, summer surely lives up to its promise as a tranquil time. As they lie on a sandbar feeling their stress ebb with the tide, their weightiest thoughts are of sunburn, the need to get limes for the Coronas and how many pounds of lobster to buy for dinner.

For everyone else, summer arrives with an undercurrent of frustration. Every year, it seems life in summer ought to be slower, and every year, it’s not.

Blame nostalgia for childhood summers, and all the songwriters selling the idea that the living should be easy as the temperature rises. The stock market and Congress bolster the myth -- Congress with its long vacations, and the stock market with lighter trading. The news business has less to cover, so the volume usually drops on its endless squawking.

Look for signs of "summer doldrums" elsewhere and you won't come up with much. By June, the labor market is hopping: There are typically 3 million more Americans working than there were four months earlier. In the average office, more people are on vacation, sure, but that leaves everyone else to pick up the slack. And even those who get away for a week -- two might be pushing it -- keep checking in on their cellphones.

The economy keeps humming all summer. U.S. gross domestic product shrinks by about 3 percent every winter, when grocery shoppers and construction workers stay inside. By summer, home sales almost double and auto sales jump 40 percent. Farmers start bringing in crops and the nation's ports are full of an extra $20 billion to $40 billion a month in merchandise.

Americans don’t slow down in the free time they do find in the summer, either. Loss of virginity is particularly likely during the summer, one study found. Another noticed how searches for sex- and dating-related terms spike in June and July. (There’s another spike in December and January.) Underage drinking peaks in July. And with more people on the roads, summer brings seven of the year’s 10 deadliest driving days.

Even though markets are usually quiet in the summer, the stock market has a history of surprising investors. Stocks' most recent summer freak-out was in 2011. At one point in August, the S&P 500 was down almost 15 percent for the month. Investors saw similar losses in the summers of 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2008. With less trading comes lower returns: A study of 51 stock markets found monthly returns about 1 percent lower during the summer than in the rest of the year.

Many people’s summers mirror the stock market: Even when activity does slow down, the results are disappointing. Instead of relaxing into a summer break, parents feel pressure to give their kids “memorable experiences,” says Paul Fitzgerald, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. They end up frazzled by any incidents that don’t fit the plan, from broken arms to bad weather.

They’d be better off remembering that the root of the word vacation is “vacate,” he says. “It’s a time to get out of your life as it usually is.” That includes lowering expectations for what summer ought to be -- and enjoying any peace and quiet that happen to come along.

More stories by Ben Steverman:

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