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Feb. 23 2010 - 11:30 am | 2,552 views | 1 recommendation | 9 comments

Vacation Begins the Day You Start Planning

Elisabeth and the Gnome

Image by ilovememphis via Flickr

A new study [abstract] shows that one of the biggest happiness boosts of a vacation comes from the simple act of planning your vacation. Here’s what a Dutch research team found:

The aim of this study was to obtain a greater insight into the association between vacations and happiness. We examined whether vacationers differ in happiness, compared to those not going on holiday, and if a holiday trip boosts post-trip happiness. These questions were addressed in a pre-test/post-test design study among 1,530 Dutch individuals. 974 vacationers answered questions about their happiness before and after a holiday trip. Vacationers reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness, compared to non-vacationers, possibly because they are anticipating their holiday. Only a very relaxed holiday trip boosts vacationers’ happiness further after return. Generally, there is no difference between vacationers’ and non-vacationers’ post-trip happiness. The findings are explained in the light of set-point theory, need theory and comparison theory.

This summary downplays how beneficial vacations can be — it found that a “very relaxing” vacation could create a noticeable (if small) bump in happiness for at least two weeks, wearing off completely after eight weeks. A small buzz of extra happiness for two to eight weeks sounds pretty good to me.

But how about that planning finding? It’s not that surprising to find out that vacations have a pretty small effect after we get back. We’ve probably all been hit by bouts of post-trip depression. After a week driving up and down Sicilian hillsides, getting on the subway can feel like crawling into a tomb.

Many people would probably be surprised, though, to think that the mere act of logging in to Travelocity is going to give them a boost. However, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve always loved planning a vacation. Start off daydreaming about where you might like to go. Look at various beautiful places and imagine being there. Look at hotels and imagine staying there. Look at rental cars and imagine driving down the highway. If a trip’s complicated — involving more than a few destinations — I’ll take a week or more to plan, doing just a little bit at a time so that the planning won’t be over until it’s just about time to leave. What could be more fun? The majority of what we “buy” on a vacation is the memories and the anticipation — why not draw them out as much as we can? On the back end, I go through all the pictures (I take way too many, more than 1,000 most trips) and put together some sort of album.

The point is, a trip is much more than the time you spend actually on it. Are there practical applications to any of this? I think a few:

  • Treat planning as fun — if you’ve previously thought of booking plans as a hassle, try to look at it as part of the experience of the trip.
  • Take back mementos of one kind or another to bring your mind back — pictures, souvenirs, notes you take on the road, whatever. You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. Little things — a ticket stub — will jog your memory and give you enjoyment years later.
  • Take more, shorter vacations. More vacations means more days looking forward to getting away, and more days with a slight buzz once you get back.

I think I’ll take a look at some flights right now…

  • Neuroworld looked at why we remember here.

  • Neuroworld looked at the beneficial effects of nature here.

  • Neuroworld looked at how vacations break the stress loop (in rats) here.

  • Neuroworld looked at what to leave for burglars while you’re on vacation here.


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  1. collapse expand

    …”planning your vacation”. Doesn’t surprise me one bit. When I got married there was absolutely, positively, unquestionably, (insert selected adverb here)no question that the planning of the event was FAR more satisfying than the event itself. The planning ENGAGED all my emotion, creativity, excitement, etc. The process itself just – primarily – drained all of same. Ever since, I have been very aware of BEING aware of that dynamic: if something is of great emotional value, if an event presents a memorable dynamic, – well, then – do it mindfully. Saturate yourself in the process because that is the element that will stick; i.e., find its way to whatever that cortex or particular segment of lobe that is designed to decorate its walls with memorabilia – and stay with you and produce those :) ’s of satisfaction for years to come!

  2. collapse expand

    Ryan, you may enjoy your planning even more if you take the dopamine precursor L-Dopa

    “that enhances dopaminergic function during the imaginative construction of positive future life events subsequently enhances estimates of the hedonic pleasure

  3. collapse expand

    Traveling abroad need a plan.As example if you want to go Bahamas http://www.bahams4u.com
    for spending summer vacation, you need all dresses, swimsuit, your personal things etc,in your traveling bag.

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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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