Before we commence with the festivities, I just wanted to let you know my first book is now a Wall Street Journal bestseller! To check it out, click here.
You’d like to be on vacation right now, wouldn’t you?
You’ve probably heard that spending money on experiences like travel makes you happier than just buying material things. Well, that’s true:
Asked which of the two purchases made them happier, fully 57% of respondents reported that they had derived greater happiness from their experiential purchase, while only 34% reported greater happiness from their material purchase.
But, as usual, that’s not the whole story…
Experiences aren’t always the biggest happiness boosters. When they go well, they’re more likely to bring you joy than buying stuff. But when they go bad, they’re worse:
…experiences do lead to more happiness when the purchase goes well. “However, for negative purchases, bad experiences lead to more lasting unhappiness than do bad material purchases. Experiences ‘stay with’ us longer than material purchases, whether good or bad. They simply have more lasting power over our happiness…
So if you’re going on vacation, you want to do it right… But what are the rules for having a good vacation? (They didn’t offer a class on that in my high school.)
Well, my girlfriend and I recently took a trip and you better believe I wanted to wring every last drop of pleasure out of our getaway. So, me being me, I reviewed the research. It made our trip great… despite plenty of unexpected adversity.
And it can do the same for yours. So here’s what scientific studies say you need to know to have a great vacation…
Book your trip as early as possible. No, I’m not telling you that because it’s prudent or because it will save you money. I’m saying that because the sooner you book it, the sooner you can start anticipating it.
Believe it or not, anticipating your vacation can be even more enjoyable than the trip itself.
…researchers who studied a thousand Dutch vacationers concluded that by far the greatest amount of happiness extracted from the vacation is derived from the anticipation period…
No, I didn’t book our trip early. Cut me some slack; I’ve been busy writing blog posts and promoting a book. (See what I did there? Very meta.)
But we got our anticipation in because we’ve been drooling over this adventure for months.
Now anticipation doesn’t just boost happiness before the big day arrives. If you make anticipation a habit, it can turn you into a happier person all around:
…people who devote time to anticipating enjoyable experiences report being happier in general (Bryant, 2003).
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
Alright, so you’re putting your getaway on the calendar ASAP. But what kind of vacation should you take? Research shows people often make two big mistakes when deciding on a trip…
Your friend had fun in Hawaii so maybe you should just go to Hawaii… Wrong.
The first big mistake people make when planning a vacation is they think too much about the event and not enough about their personality:
They also discovered that most of us ignore our own personalities when we think about what lies ahead—and thus miscalculate our future feelings… “It might be worthwhile, before you make a big decision, to think about your personality and how you usually react,” Quoidbach says. Think about planning a vacation, for example. If you have a happy disposition, you probably don’t need to waste a lot of money and effort finding the perfect location (because you will be happy with most vacations anyway). By contrast, if you have a less happy disposition, you might be more prone to regret the slightest annoyance, so carefully planning every detail of the trip might be the best strategy for your future happiness. “Don’t focus too much on the event; think about who you are,” advises Quoidbach.
If you’re a thrill-seeking extrovert, a week-long meditation retreat may be ill-advised. And if you go through a bottle of Purell a day, backpacking through a rainforest would be a prescription for a panic attack.
The girlfriend and I picked a place that we both found gorgeous and that had plenty of activities she loved… Oh and it, um, just happened to have incredible WiFi coverage.
Now the second big mistake people make is that with expensive purchases like vacations, they’re often too focused on getting value for their money. That’s like ordering the item on the menu that gets you the most food for your dollar — even if you don’t like that type of food.
Research shows that with cheaper purchases (like going to the movies) we’re more focused on relationships — who we’re going with. And that perspective leads to more happiness-inducing results:
“In terms of happiness, the relationships people build through shared experiences are more important than the experience itself” said Graham Hill, Community Manager of BeyondThePurchase.org. “This study shows that at lower price points, people pay more attention to what’s important – sharing the experience with others.”
Think a little less about getting the most for your buck and more about who you’re going with and what the two of you will really enjoy. (Wasn’t a problem with our trip.)
And how long should your vacation be? Research says aim for 3 to 6 days:
…people on mid-length holidays of between three to six days tended to report more positive mood than those on shorter or longer trips.
We went for six days and it was great. And given that Air Berlin lost our luggage and I only had the clothes I was wearing on the plane, um, seven days would have been difficult… And smelly. Very smelly.
(To learn the 8 ways to spend your money that will increase happiness, click here.)
So you know the type of vacation you want to take. But how should you spend your time? You want to relax. You probably just want to be free to sit around and do nothing…
I know, I know: the idea of scheduling your free time sounds awful. Like work. And work is exactly what you’re trying to get away from…
But when you don’t schedule time, you waste time. People who schedule their free time are happier:
The result has found a positive relationship between free time management and quality of life… Results might indicate that people who manage their free time well lead to better quality of life.
And you want to put a bunch of fun stuff on the calendar, not just one big awesome thing a day. Why? Because the research consistently shows that when it comes to happiness, frequency beats intensity.
A lot of little good things create more smiles than a few big things:
Indeed, across many different domains, happiness is more strongly associated with the frequency than the intensity of people’s positive affective experiences (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991).
The girlfriend and I made sure every day had new, fun adventures (notwithstanding other unplanned activities like “The Quest for Claritin, Flonase, And Every Other Thing In My Toiletry Bag That Air Berlin Lost.”)
(To see the schedule that very successful people follow every day, click here.)
Okay, you’re breaking out the calendar and scheduling lots of fun stuff. But what’s the best way to make the most of those activities so they really bring you joy?
The research says “savoring” is one of the keys to happiness. What’s that mean?
It means put that smartphone down, stop thinking about what the trip is costing you, and really pay attention to the good moments unfolding before your eyes.
In all these studies those participants prompted to practice savoring regularly showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.
So what’s a good way to savor? Don’t worry; the most effective method is ridiculously simple and the two of us did it a lot on our trip. Just turn to the person you’re with and say, “Isn’t this fantastic?”
It’s that easy. Sound too easy to be effective? Wrong.
Indeed, this social-behavioral approach to savoring is the single strongest predictor of enjoyment…
Note: Sarcastically saying “Isn’t this fantastic?” when three days have gone by with no word about your baggage does not count.
(To learn all the most effective ways to savor the good moments of life, click here.)
You’re savoring away. Great. But all moments are not created equal. So which parts of your vacation do you need to give special attention to?
Okay, we need to talk about colonoscopy research. Yes, it’s relevant. And it was even done by a Nobel Prize winner. So bear with me here, okay?
I need to talk to you about getting things shoved in your butt. Yes, literally getting things shoved in your butt. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Redelmeier looked at how much pain people remembered after colonoscopies. It turns out that how long the procedures lasted and the average amount of pain didn’t influence people’s recollections. What really seemed to matter was the peak amount of discomfort and how it ended. A longer colonoscopy with a higher average amount of pain but a low peak and a gentle ending was remembered as less uncomfortable. Meanwhile, a quick one with a low average but a sharp peak and an unpleasant conclusion was remembered as being far worse.
So what’s this have to do with vacations? The underlying principle holds for things much more pleasant that colonoscopies: your memory isn’t perfect. It’s disproportionately focused on the peak and the end of any event.
So if you want to remember your vacation as being fun — even if you’re forced to pay extortionate prices for swim trunks because all you have is one pair of jeans — then plan a positive emotional high point and make sure the trip ends well:
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.
(To learn the 6 rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)
Alright, so the vacation is over and you’re rejuvenated. Time to jump right back into working like a dog? Absolutely not…
After you come back from vacation, you’re happier, more energized, and you’re likely to see a boost in your engagement at work. These feelings can last up to a month. Unless…
You immediately start working like a madman and don’t give yourself some leisure time. Then that post-vacation boost gets cut a lot shorter.
So ease back into work. Make sure to have some fun outside the office. This can keep that afterglow around a while longer:
…job demands after vacation sped up the fade-out of beneficial effects. Additionally, leisure time relaxation experiences after vacation delayed the fade-out of beneficial effects. We conclude that reducing job demands and ensuring leisure time relaxation can prolong relief from vacation.
So if you write to me about this post and I don’t get back to you immediately… well, you know why. I’d hate to be a hypocrite.
(To learn the secret to being successful and happy, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and discover how to keep that vacation happiness going long after you’ve returned home…
Here’s how to have a great vacation:
So what’s the secret to holding on to some of that vacation joy?
Reminisce about the trip after you’re back:
One reason that paying for experiences gives us longer-lasting happiness is that we can reminisce about them, researchers say.
Reliving the good times with your travel partner is a huge happiness booster.
Researchers have found that mutual reminiscence—sharing memories with other people—is accompanied by abundant positive emotions, such as joy, accomplishment, amusement, contentment, and pride.
After each trip, the girlfriend and I compile a list of memories. We include lots of stuff, but the majority of them are the moments that made us laugh out loud.
(Even if those moments are trying on the most ill-fitting, overpriced, touristy t-shirts because you can’t stand washing your only shirt in the bathtub yet again.)
The two of us focus on the funny moments because that’s just our way… but I gotta say it’s also nice to know the scientific research has my back on this one:
Results show preliminary support for the notion that reminiscing about laughter may have a more potent influence on relationship well being than reminiscing about other positive events.
So go plan that vacation. And make it a great one.
Sadly, that trip will eventually come to an end…
But the wonderful memories won’t. They’ll be with you long after you’ve returned home…
And finally put on a clean shirt.
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