It’s a fact: Going on a vacation can boost your level of happiness by improving your health, making you more rested, putting you in a better mood, and giving you a higher energy level. Unfortunately, research shows that once you get home, that extra happiness can quickly fade. So what are we to do? Yahoo Travel researched and talked to the experts to find out how to maximize your vacation happiness and make it last longer when you get home.
Plan (way) ahead
The planning of a vacation is almost as important as the actual getaway, because having something to look forward to ups your happiness. “People actually get pleasure and joy out of anticipation,” explains happiness expert Christine Carter, author of The Sweet Spot. According to psychologist and University of Chicago postdoctoral research fellow Amit Kumar: “People are excited when they’re looking forward to the satisfaction they’ll get from … vacations. … One way they can extend these pleasurable feelings is by increasing the amount of time and hence the number of opportunities they have to think about, to talk about, and to savor their future experiential consumption.”
Go on a unique trip
If animals are your thing, why not head to the Galapagos — it will be unique and meaningful. (Photo: A. Davey/Flickr)
“Experiences seem to be [most] beneficial when they provide a unique opportunity that isn’t easy to compare with other options,” according to Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher at the University of British Columbia and the author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. And according to Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist who specializes in travel, whatever that unique quality is, it should be meaningful to you. “We find that when you’re doing things that connect to your personality and your personal strengths, you’re probably a pretty happy person.”
Make the beginning amazing
Research shows that the start of a vacation can have the biggest impact — and if that’s a great experience, you’re likely to remember the whole thing in a more positive light. According to Dunn, if you’re going to stay at an amazing hotel or splurge on a show or a meal, it can be a good strategy to do that early on.
Travel with happy people
Happiness is actually contagious, according to research. “A person’s happiness is best predicted by the happiness of the people around them,” explains Carter. So make sure you travel with people who will multiply the happiness, rather than strangle it. Plus, social connection is another big happiness booster. “We all have a deep need to connect. Use your vacation time to nurture your personal relationships,” suggests Carter.
Make sure to relax — a lot
Nothing says relaxing like a hammock on the beach. (Photo: Thinkstock)
“What we know about vacation happiness that lasts beyond your return home, is that the break needs to be relaxing,” says Carter. One study found that participants who “did nothing” on vacation had longer lasting feelings than those who spent their time engaging in physical activity. In fact, it’s a common mistake people make — planning adventure for every moment because they think they should be seeing the sights or trying things. They have FOMO (fear of missing out), says Carter: “For most people, that’s not relaxing,” she says. And while you’re at it, sleep more. “Sleeping well and for longer periods [is] also associated with higher well-being,” explains positive psychology coach Genevieve Douglass.
Smile at people
Several studies seem to show that even fake smiles may increase happy feelings — apparently facial changes when you’re smiling can actually affect the brain. Plus, when you smile at someone, you “experience the warmth of others,” says Carter. There’s a ton of research about the benefit of connecting with people — even ones you don’t know — while on vacation, according to Carter. “It will make your trip.”
Not planning every last detail has a few benefits when it comes to your vacation. First, having the freedom to choose is good for your well-being, according to research. Second, things can go wrong on holiday, and studies show these disappointments can make a vacation less enjoyable. However, more-flexible expectations for your vacation may help you deal better. Third, being flexible leaves room for discovery and a more memorable trip, says psychologist Pauline Wallin. “If you allow for surprise experiences, they’ll be unexpected and novel, and you’ll remember it more.”
Take pictures the right way
These flowers are ready for their close-up. (Photo: Parvin/Flickr)
A great thing about vacation is the memories. In fact, positive vacation memories “occupy disproportionately large tracts of real estate in our minds,” according to Nymag.com. But taking photos can sabotage that. “Something we know about taking pictures,” says Carter, is that “you’re less likely to remember something if you take a picture of it. The mechanism here, we think, is in your brain — it unconsciously makes a note, ‘I’ve outsourced that memory. I don’t need to keep it.’” But there is a way around it. “If you zoom in and take a picture of a small detail, it doesn’t have the same effect. Your mind still has to construct the rest of the scene,” explains Carter. “Plus, you get some really cool pictures that way.” Additionally, “If you spend the whole time behind the camera trying to get the best shot, you’re not experiencing it,” says Carter. “Since taking photos can be an act of creation that people enjoy, it’s really about finding a balance between taking pictures and allowing your mind to make vivid memories.”
Have a “no hellish travel home” rule
“Most people’s instinct is to stay on the beach (or wherever they are) until the last possible moment,” says Carter. “But you can actually create anxiety by taking the last flight out, being exhausted, and not leaving enough time to prepare to get back to real life when you get home. It’s really important to allow enough time and space so you can settle in in a relaxed way when you get home.” Often that means coming home a day or two early.
Have someone cover for you at work while you’re away
You’ll need to plan this before you leave, and it will keep you from worrying about work and home while you’re away, but the real benefits come when you return. “Don’t pretend you’re not going on vacation,” suggests Carter. “Have a kid come by and pick up your mail. Have an assistant or an intern handle deleting promotions and putting other emails in folders by importance or category. Put on a vacation responder. That way you don’t have that horrible punch to the gut when you get back.” According to one study, the post-vacation happiness of participants who did not return to a mountain of piled-up work lasted longer than those who did. And not being overwhelmed with work may also give you the ability to use post-vacay free time after work and on weekends to relax, which studies show also prolongs residual happiness.
Share your stories
Tell pals about your vacay and share your photos. (Photo: Thinkstock)
It’s been shown that people are happier when they spend their money on experiences like vacation rather than on material things. Part of the reason is that “experiences provided more conversational value,” according to Kumar, and we “derive utility from discussing them with others after the fact.” Just be sure to do it the right way: share, don’t compare. Some research has shown that if you think someone had a bigger, better, more awesome something (in this case, vacation) than you, it can reduce the value of your own experience.