I really enjoyed a recent article from The Boston Globe called The best vacation ever. Drake Bennett, the author, writes about the scientific research into happiness, and how that can be applied to taking a vacation.
Basically, think of your vacation as having 3 phases:
1. Planning before the trip
2. The trip itself
3. Your memories afterwards
Something surprising to me was the finding that people are often least happy during the trip itself. That’s because you’re dealing with all the confusion and frustration of travel: how to get places, where to eat, deciding what to do. It’s not always fun and relaxing. Another surprising finding is that length is not very important.
For psychologists and behavioral economists, vacations are a window into the still only dimly understood mystery of human pleasure, a field known as hedonic psychology. Their research, along with other work on prototypically pleasant (and unpleasant) experiences, has begun to yield a portrait of your mind on vacation. And if the findings tell us anything, it’s that we might actually need some help. When we guess the best way to spend our free time, it seems that we often guess wrong.
There are untold shelves of books dedicated to the art of maximizing our time at work, but no corresponding literature on maximizing our leisure time. Even asking the question of how to “optimize” a vacation seems fundamentally un-vacation-like. And yet people constantly puzzle over how to get the most out of their valuable time off: poring over guidebooks, checking the forecast, looking up online reviews of hotels and restaurants, arguing with spouses over where to go and what to do, and when.
The problem, say some social scientists, is that people do all this — and spend thousands of dollars — with an incomplete understanding of what qualities make an experience enjoyable. Take duration. A longer vacation seems, by definition, better than a shorter one, and having lots of paid vacation time is a highly valued job perk. But when we recall an experience, and how it made us feel, it turns out that length isn’t terribly important.
A Dutch study showed that going on vacation boosted mood, but did nothing for how people felt afterwards. My personal experience is that I used to feel depressed after coming back from a vacation, and I think it was because I was coming back to my regular life of working in a cubicle, doing a job I didn’t like, while dreaming of a more adventurous and interesting life. Now that I’m living in Beijing, my daily life is more interesting and challenging, and my life overall is more fulfilling. So the vacation relaxes and rejuvenates me, as it’s supposed to, rather than revealing to me how unsatisfied I am.
For me, the biggest practical take-away of the article is to focus more on taking short vacations and weekend getaways, because the peak experiences matter more than the length. That will be a hard adjustment for me to make since I’m in the habit of trying to go to a new country for 2 weeks or more.
The article is full of other good advice as well, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.