The science of the perfect vacation: 4 keys to making it memorable
Published Monday, June 23, 2014 7:03AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 25, 2014 4:05PM EDT
Summer in Canada is painfully short. And since most of us get only a few weeks of holidays a year, when Canadians take a vacation, it's important we get it right. So what makes for a holiday that everyone in the family will remember fondly for years? Let’s take a look at what science tells us are the four keys to a great vacation.
Last-minute vacations might be great for snagging seat sale deals, but they might actually cheat us out of some of the fun. Research has found that the best part of a trip is the anticipation phase, when we’re imagining what we’re going to do on our trip, what we’ll wear and what we’ll eat. All that pre-trip excitement allows the joys of a vacation to begin even before we pull out a suitcase.
Researchers have found that those in the throes of "vacation anticipation" are happier than those who have no plans to go away anytime soon, and that the eight weeks of lead-up to a trip brings its own happiness.
A series of studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology also found that people are happier during the planning stages ahead of a vacation than they are afterward. In other words, we just might enjoy looking forward to trips more than reminiscing about them.
2. Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation
Here’s a sad truth about vacations: in general, the happiness that comes from taking a holiday doesn’t last long. In fact, Dutch researcher Jeroen Nawijn, who specializes in the psychology of tourism, has found that post-vacation bliss tends to drop off quickly once we return home and evaporates almost completely by the first day back to work.
But Nawijn did find one exception: In a study he conducted on around 1,000 vacationers, those who reported that their trips were not just relaxing, but "very relaxing," also said their vacation happiness lingered for several weeks after their return.
Another study from researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands also found that post-vacation bliss doesn’t last long. But their study was able to narrow down the key factors that increase lasting feelings of wellness after trips. These include trip with lots of passive activities, savouring, relaxation, and sleep.
The best kinds of trips, it seems, don’t involve packed itineraries of sightseeing and socializing, but instead lots of casual lazing about, sleeping in and drinking in the scenery. Sounds delightful.
3. Memorable moments
Why is it that we remember some vacations vividly, and others just seem like a blur? That's something that New Zealand psychology researcher Simon Kemp wanted to know. He had 49 holiday-goers rate their happiness every day of a trip. When they returned, he asked the holiday-goers to recall their day-to-day happiness during the trip.
He found that participants’ ability to remember how happy they were each day was generally way off; in fact they recalled they had been a lot happier throughout the trip than they actually reported during the trip. They also tended to vividly recall their most memorable 24-hour period of the holiday -- good or bad. And it was that day that most influenced how they rated the overall happiness of the trip.
This all relates to something called the "Peak-End rule," which is the theory that people tend to judge an experience by its most intense point and its end.
So the take-away here might be that since all that will be remembered are the vacation’s high point and the end, plan a trip with lots of the fun events booked near its conclusion.
4. Long trips not always better
So have scientists figured out the ideal length of a vacation? One might think the longer a getaway, the better. But it turns out the length of a trip isn’t terribly important to how much we enjoy it.
Nawijn has reviewed much of the recent research on the psychology of vacationing and concludes there is no perfect vacation length: As long as a trip provides an opportunity to relax, post-trip happiness is about the same.
The team from Radboud in the Netherlands studied vacationers who were lucky enough to be able to take three-week-long vacations. They found that feelings of wellness increased quickly after a vacation began and then peaked around Day 8.
Why so long? The researchers theorize it can often take a while to wind down from the stress of home life and get into the groove of holidaying. Sadly, though, their study also found that even with long vacations, feelings of wellness rapidly fell in that first week home.
So if the feel-good effects of holidaying are so fleeting, why even bother investing the time and money that vacations demand? The Radboud team offers lots of good reasons: Vacations prevents demoralization in the workforce, improve the quality of our relationships, and help to give us another perspective on life. There are also plenty of studies that show that those who don’t vacation tend to die earlier.
"Asking why we should keep going on vacations is... comparable to asking why we should go to sleep considering the fact that we get tired again," the authors sagely write.
Yes, the good feelings of a vacation are brief, but so is summer; the trick is to savour it while you can.