How to make a vacation count

by Pop on August 17, 2010

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Live happier, feel more relaxed, and restore your mental health.

Have you ever taken a two-week vacation, come back to work, and felt stressed before the next weekend arrived? Me too. And it wasn’t because the vacation was miserable. Quite the contrary.

Still, scientists and economists have long wondered why certain experiences that should leave us with lasting feelings of happiness and satisfaction wear off quickly and others stick with us for decades. You can’t get a better vacation by spending more money—jetting off longer distances to ritzier destinations. So what does maximize your vacation dollar and day?

Let’s get one obvious point out of the way. To enjoy a vacation, you have to take it. And too few of us do. According to Ipsos/Reuters, only 57% of Americans use all their vacation. Compare that to France, where workers get 37 days of vacation on average and 89% use all of it. We’re not the worst— South Koreans, Australians, South Africans and the Japanese are all even less likely to use their vacation time.

Not taking a vacation you’re entitled to is like leaving money on the table. Someone who makes $50,000 per year and doesn’t take the two-weeks he’s due is effectively taking a $2,000 pay cut. I hope doing the math would make him feel less bad about taking it.

Let’s say you’ve gotten over that though and are ready to plan the big escape. How can you make it the best you and your family could ask for?

Plan far in advance.

No, not because you can often get the best hotel rates and air fares that way—though that’s true too. Planning ahead gives you the psychic benefits of a vacation earlier, which results in a real increase in happiness even before you step on the plane.

A survey of 1,500 Netherlanders, which happened to catch 1,000 before vacations, found that their happiness markedly increased in the weeks leading up to their departure. A separate study found that the effect was particularly acute in the two weeks right before the vacation.

So while last minute junkets can be refreshing, keep in mind that the cost of your spontaneity is the two weeks-plus of anticipation that provides some, if not most, of your vacation enjoyment! Those same Dutchmen, after returning home, only took one week to return to their pre-vacation levels of mood, tension, energy, and satisfaction.

I’ve personally planned vacations more than a year in advance. And I tend to put reminders of it in places where I’ll run across them daily. I archive most of my Gmail messages, but the airplane itinerary will sit in the Inbox at the top of the list. I’ll have at least one guidebook sitting on a visible shelf. For one vacation, I actually had a sticker on a globe sitting next to the bed right up until we left.

Research each destination and activity thoroughly.

This is, in part, related to the “placebo effect” of expensive wine I wrote about a few months ago. If you’re told a wine is expensive or is going to taste great, when you actually put the glass to your lips, it will taste better, all else being equal.

Think about how you can apply that principle to a vacation. Instead of just doing a lot of research on Orlando and Disney World, put some time into researching the drive out there. Will you be driving through historic Seminole country? Figure out where you’ll stop for lunch beforehand and find reviews touting the food.

Again, this isn’t so much about making sure you have an interesting drive and eat good food—though that’s good too. It’s because adding that research, heightens the anticipation and primes your imagination to add value to each of those experiences. A grove of trees alongside a highway simply carries more meaning if you know that American Indian tribes used the land as a hunting ground a few hundred years ago.

Focus your dollars toward the end of the trip.

Economists and psychologists have studied something called the “peak-end rule” for about a decade now. It turns out, that our lasting memory of the experience—long after the experience has actually ended—is marked by the experience’s most intense moments and its final moments.

Daniel Kahneman and Donald Redelmeier tested colonoscopy patients and found that by lessening the pain at the very end of that rather painful experience, the patients had an overall higher satisfaction with the entire procedure.

So, a pleasant and relaxing vacation on the beach might not be the way to go—unless you find intensely pleasurable moments in there somewhere. Not going to expand on that.

It might even make sense to shorten your time away if it means you would be able to take part in an incredible experience that you really want to do. Five days at the beach, including a bout of hanggliding, will ultimately be more memorable and deliver more lasting happiness than seven days without any intense experience.

Break up the vacation with real life.

Finally, and especially if you’re taking a long vacation, it’s best to break up the vacation’s most pleasurable moments with “real life”—whether it be work, a boring drive, or pretty much anything a bit less pleasurable.

This probably seems counterintuitive. And frankly, even though I have no reason to doubt the science behind it, I find nothing more irritating than when work intrudes on my Sunday afternoon.

However, humans have this unfortunate tendency to adapt to all circumstances, whether they be positive or negative. You eventually get used to the crummy apartment with the leaking sink and dingy windows, but you also get used to the plush beach chairs and cool, tropical breezes. So just as your misery is deadened over time, so will your pleasure.

Maybe I’ll take my BlackBerry to Europe after all.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob Bennett August 17, 2010 at 11:57 am

I strongly agree with the idea of planning a vacation well in advance.

When I was in my corporate job, I started planning my next vacation on the day I returned from one. Knowing about the upcoming trip made it possible for me to put up with a lot of stuff that otherwise would have been hard to take. I added lots of Fun Units by doing it that way


Pop August 17, 2010 at 6:53 pm

I almost hate to ask….”Fun Units”?

Rob Bennett August 18, 2010 at 9:08 am

“I almost hate to ask….”Fun Units”?”

Fun Units are what it’s all about. Fun Units are what you are trying to optimize.

Say that you are debating whether to spend $80 on a sweater or not. Owning the sweater will make you happy. It’s a plus. But putting $80 to work on helping you gain ground on your super-exciting saving goal (the only kind that work) might well make you more happy in an overall sense (counting both the fun you enjoy in the present just by knowing you are making progress and the fun you will have in the future when you actually achieve that super-exciting saving goal). I don’t believe that either saving or spending are good or bad in themselves, they are only good or bad to the extent that they do more to enhance your enjoyment (in a broad sense) of life than the alternative money allocation choice.

Your blog entry is describing a way to maximize Fun Units. By planning your vacations and anticipating your vacation, you enjoy it more without incurring any additional cost. I humbly request that all the economists in the room please note that what we are talking about here is a free lunch. Planning a vacation is a free lunch! I love free lunches!

I suspect at times that part of the reason I love them so much is that the economists say that they don’t exist!


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