Are there easy ways to improve your next vacation?


Christian Jarrett has a long interesting piece on vacations in The Psychologist. There are a number of interesting highlights, including the optimal length of a trip:

…people on mid-length holidays of between three to six days tended to report more positive mood than those on shorter or longer trips. ‘Possibly a two- to six-day holiday trip is long enough to enjoy (unlike a two-day trip),’ Nawijn surmised, ‘but short enough to minimise arguments with partner, family or friends.’

There’s often a big difference between how much fun we have and how much we will later remember having:

Consistent with the rosy-view effect, the students anticipated and recalled experiencing more positive emotions than they actually reported during their holiday. Contrary to the rosy-view effect, a similar pattern was also found for negative emotions, prompting the researchers to speculate that maybe it’s the intensity of emotion, good and bad, that’s overestimated before and after a holiday. Crucially, when Wirtz’s team asked the students whether they planned to go on the same holiday again, it was their remembered affective experience, rather than their actual experience, that predicted their stated decision.

In fact, your memory is so unreliable you can easily be manipulated to believe you did things that never happened:

The disconcerting finding is that when asked to recall their own Disneyland trip, the participants exposed to the misleading ad and narrative were significantly more likely (36 per cent vs. 8.7 per cent) to say erroneously that they too had met Bugs Bunny when they went to Disneyland. Replace the Bugs Bunny trick with misleading references about food or facilities on internet review sites and the profound implications of this study begin to register.

How can we take advantage of our poor memories to improve a vacation? Make sure there’s a emotional high point during your stay and always end on a good note:

…research by Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues identified something called ‘the peak-end rule’ – that is, people’s overall memories of an experience showed a strong association with the average of the peak level of emotional feeling and the final level of emotion at the end of the experience…Applying this rule to our holidays would suggest we need to try to obtain as high a peak of enjoyment as we can, and to end on a high note. The rest might not matter so much.

What do people enjoy most on vacation? Kids like sensory experiences, parents like relaxation and don’t neglect the power of family bonding over ice-cream:

For kids, it was moments of activity and absorption, such as roller-coaster rides, and sensory experiences, such as the leather-like feel of a giraffe’s tongue, that were most cherished. For parents, by contrast, relaxation was vital, as was knowing that their children were having a good time. Some parents also recalled fond memories of rediscovering their own inner child. Moments of togetherness were particularly savoured – a factor that clashed somewhat with the adults’ need for quiet periods of relaxation away from their kids. Ice-cream was a recurring theme: when families sat down together to enjoy an ice-cream (some of them reported doing this several times a day) this seemed to act as a bonding activity and also provided a rich sensory memory for the children. ‘The ice-cream situation seems to be a very harmonic moment,’ Gram wrote.

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