The Happiest Moments of Vacation May Not be What You Think


If you recently braved airport security lines, crowded highways, and big crowds to travel with your family to a popular spring break destination, you know that vacation can be stressful. But it’s also fun, of course. And we do it—overpriced blended cocktails and all—because it’s an opportunity to bond with our families and create memories that last a lifetime. At least that’s the idea, if not always the reality. A good friend of mine likes to say that traveling with kids is not a “vacation”—it’s a “trip.

You may be looking back at your most recent vacation (trip?) with mixed feelings, and asking yourself if the flight delays, credit card bills, and family squabbles were really worth it. First, know that you’re not alone. Psychologists have coined the term “post-vacation blues” to describe the feelings of anxiety, stress, and fatigue that many of us feel upon re-entry into the routine of our normal lives. It’s what leads us to think that we need a vacation from our vacation. 

Second, take comfort in knowing that happiness experienced from a vacation is not always associated with the time spent on the vacation itself. Research suggests that much of what makes us happy about a vacation takes place both well before, and well after, time spent on the beach in a distant locale. The point is, as I discuss below, a vacation is not merely a moment in time, it’s a series of moments that, in totality, can create happiness well beyond the two to four weeks per year that you spend living out of a suitcase.

Planning for a Vacation Often Leads to More Happiness than the Vacation Itself

In 2010, researchers set out to measure the effect that vacations have on overall happiness and how long it lasts. The study, published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, found that the biggest boost in happiness comes fromplanning a vacation, not taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation increased happiness for eight weeks.

In addition, Amit Kumar, Ph.D, who is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, found that when it comes to making experiential purchases such as vacations, waiting is a positive state. According to Kumar, “It’s a good idea to start planning that vacation ahead of time. We tend to look forward to what’s to come with great excitement and delight.”

Planning for a vacation allows you to anticipate all of the good times ahead, without all of the baggage (literal and figurative) associated with an actual vacation. You get to dream about the places you’ll visit, sights you’ll see, and food you’ll eat. Your upcoming vacation, at least in your mind’s eye, is an idyllic experience during the planning process. And it’s a process that the whole family can be a part of and derive happiness from. One added benefit: planning well in advance helps reduce the stress associated with the last-minute vacation scramble. 

Tip: When it comes to planning a family vacation, don’t merely tell your kids what you’ll be doing, allow them to participate. Invite everyone in the family to identify one thing that they want to do, see, and eat while on vacation, and watch anticipation turn into excitement for what lies ahead

Plan “Peak Moments” During Vacation

As is true in all of life’s experiences, not all moments are created equal on vacation. Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate, has found that people tend to evaluate experiences such as vacations not based on the totality of circumstances, but rather on “peak moments”—good or bad—that stood out. Moreover, things that happened at the end of an experience are most memorable. Kahneman described this phenomenon as the “peak-end rule.”

What this means in practical terms is that after a family vacation to Disney World, for example, you likely won’t reminisce about the trip based on the time you spent waiting in line or eating mouse-shaped personal pizzas, but rather you’ll focus on your first ride on Space Mountain and when your daughter got to meet Elsa and Anna. These peak moments leave an impact, and form the most lasting memories.

Tip: Some peak moments happen spontaneously. You can’t necessarily plan for a dolphin sighting or epic sunset. But don’t leave things completely to chance. During your vacation planning process, make sure to schedule time, especially at the tail-end of your trip, for activities that will result in a positive experience (a wonderful meal, an outdoor adventure, or a special gathering with friends and family) that will create a residue of happiness and positive memories that will last long after the vacation ends

Vacation Experiences, Even Seemingly Negative Ones, get Better Over Time

Last week, I attended a conference in New Orleans, and Heather flew down on Wednesday to meet me while our kids stayed home with my mom. We had an enjoyable and relaxing getaway. However, our flight home was Saturday morning, and when we touched down at Chicago O’Hare to catch our connecting flight to Traverse City, we learned that our flight was cancelled due to the storm. American Airlines told us that the earliest they could get us back was Monday.

While Heather was trying to retrieve our luggage, I rented a car because we decided to drive home. During the process, we met a woman whose flight to Traverse City also got cancelled, and she asked if she could hitch a ride with us. To be honest, I wasn’t wild about the idea. It had already been a long day of travel, and I didn’t necessarily want to involve someone else in what turned out to be a seven hour, white-knuckled drive home through ice and snow. But Heather talked some sense into me, and the three of us set off on a long drive Up North.

It ended up being a rough drive, but in retrospect, and unexpectedly, it was one of the highlights of the trip. The woman we drove home was on her way to see her grandkids, and was extremely grateful to tag along. We shared laughs and more than a few nervous moments on the icy roads.

While the moment-to-moment experience was not always pleasant, we have a very favorable impression of it in the rearview mirror. There’s a reason for this, as research has shown that experiences, even unpleasant ones, often give us pleasure in retrospect, through the memories we have and the stories we tell. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience while traveling, such as getting lost or caught in the rain while camping, that seemed like a disaster at the time but you now look back on with laughter and fondness.

The point is that by investing in new experiences, even if things don’t go the way you planned, your memories and impressions of the experience will get better with time. Contrast this with the “buyer’s remorse” that is commonly felt after buying new objects. Uncertainty is a byproduct of trying new things, and it often leads to unexpected happiness.

Tip: The next time you’re traveling and incidental annoyances, disturbances, and distractions pop up, keep in mind that when things don’t go as planned, you may be in the midst of one of the best parts of an unexpected adventure.


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Jay Harrington