Optimizing vacation happiness the scientific way

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To enjoy your travels the most, research indicates that you should take lots of brief, exciting getaways rather than one long, relaxing vacation.

And, as odd the idea may seem, people tend to be happier before and after trips than they are when they're actually on vacation. Weird, right?

These are some of the takeaways from "The best vacation ever" in yesterday's Boston Globe. The story draws on insights from various studies and psychologists, along with Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke University and author of the new book The Upside of Irrationality. One of the big points in the Globe story:

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.

Apparently, what matters more than the length of the vacation is the intensity of the experience(s). Vacations are mostly about creating great memories, and the experiences that blow our minds are the ones we remember best -- and that make us happiest in the long run. So one amazing night or exciting afternoon activity may very well stand out in one's memory (and produce more happiness) than a relaxing but uneventful two weeks of vegging out.

Here's how the Globe explains how you might want to adjust your vacation approach:

… if you're deciding between a longer trip and a more eventful one—if, for example, the money it would cost for a few more nights in a hotel would mean you wouldn't be able to afford a coveted splurge dinner or surfing lessons or concert tickets or a rain forest guide—then it makes more sense to just shorten the trip in the interest of making it more intense while you're there.

You'd think that doing produces more happiness than planning or remembering, but that's not the case. According to surveys:

… respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

So how do you be in the moment and truly enjoy yourself on vacation? Oddly enough, because everything is relative, and we tend to enjoy (or feel disappointment) mostly in comparison to other experiences, it helps to break up your vacation and take care of work or other "real life" responsibilities you're supposed to be avoiding while you're away. What you might assume would be a buzz kill will actually increase your overall happiness. Confused? Here's the explanation:

"If you put a disruption in a hedonic experience, it intensifies it," [University of California-Berkeley psychologist Leif] Nelson says. The same principle, he argues, would apply to a vacation. "You can imagine spending a weekend at some wonderful beach house. While it's great for the first couple of hours, by the second day, it's pleasant and then no longer exciting. If for some reason you're forced to leave the beach house, when you return, you have all that new pleasure again."

It's OK then to go ahead and call work or answer some e-mails while you're on vacation. That bit of advice should make workaholics suffering from "leisure sickness" happy. For that matter, a little reality check should make all travelers happier, and appreciative of the fact that they're on vacation and not in the office.


Get Psyched: 3 Psychological Strategies for Happier Vacations

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