How to Maximize Your Vacation Happiness

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Portugal, Lagos, Mid adult woman reading book on beach
Yes, but will it last? Photo: Ulrich Hagemann/Westend61/Corbis

The sad thing about vacations is that they end. However much fun you’re having at the beach or carving down a ski mountain or at your sustainable carbon-neutral ecolodge in the rainforest, the specter of your trip home and the resumption of normal day-to-day annoyances is always right there.

And as Jennifer Senior pointed out last year, there is indeed a fair amount of research showing that shortly after you return from a vacation, your happiness level bounces back to where it was beforehand. Senior quoted psychologist and vacation researcher Jessica de Bloom, who along with some colleagues wrote in one paper that “Most vacations seem to have strong, but rather short-lived effects.”

But that doesn’t mean one should despair or cancel that plane ticket. Happiness research and consumer psychology have advanced to the point where there are some clear recommendations that can help you maximize the amount of happiness you get from your vacation — even if that peak vacation high is inevitably going to dissipate.

In terms of happiness-per-dollar-spent, vacations are the right idea in general. A lot of past research has suggested that experiences in general provide more happiness than material goods. That’s partly because — excited new owners of the latest iPhone who won’t shut up notwithstanding — humans generally have more of a tendency to talk about experiences than mere stuff. “When one buys an experience, they seem to be buying themselves a story as well,” said Dr. Amit Kumar, a social psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who studies the relationship between money and happiness. “So one way vacations continue to provide hedonic benefits even after they’ve long since passed is because they live on in the stories we tell.”

In an article currently in press in the Personality and Social Psychology bulletin, Kumar and Cornell’s Dr. Thomas Gilovich further buttressed this finding by asking study participants to think about material versus “experiential” purchases they had made in the past. “Experiential purchases (many of which were travel-related) made people happier than material purchases,” said Kumar, “and this was explained by the fact that experiences provided more conversational value.”

That’s not the start and the end of it, though — not every conversation about an experience makes you happier. Some research, for example, has shown that conversations that involve comparing a given experience (or product) to others like it can reduce the happiness benefit those purchases provided. That’s one reason, said Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher at the University of British Columbia and the author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, that it’s worth seeking out unique vacation experiences — the sorts of stuff that can’t really be compared to your friends experiences. “Experiences seem to be [most]  beneficial when they provide a unique opportunity that isn’t easy to compare with other options,” she said. In terms of maximizing happiness, you don’t want to get back, talk about your vacation with friends, and find out that “their cruise boat was bigger and had seven pools, while ours had four.” This is intuitive — someone will always have gone on a cooler cruise than you, will always have stayed at nicer ski lodge. And “even when the vacation experience [itself] isn’t ‘unique,’ people should focus on the unique aspects of their own vacation,” said Dr. Margaret Campbell, a happiness researcher at the University of Colorado - Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.

Another aspect of vacations that’s ripe for happiness-hacking is timing. Dunn said that there’s solid evidence that the first few days of a vacation leave the biggest, most lasting imprint. If these days are happy days, the vacation will be both anticipated and remembered with more fondness overall; if they aren’t, then they’ll drag down the whole thing. “Making the very beginning of the trip good could be a good strategy,” said Dunn. She herself has taken advantage of this psychological quirk. When she and her husband took a vacation in Bali, for example, the couple generally opted for budget-conscious lodging — except for at the beginning. “The first night I used points to get us a room at a super-duper five-star resort, and it really worked,” she said. “When we were getting ready and packing and on the long flight and getting ready for the trip, I focused disproportionately on that first night.”

She also said that there’s at least some evidence, though she called it more mixed, that “the very end of an experience seems to disproportionately affect our memory of it,” so “going out with a bang, going on the hot air balloon or whatever on the last day of the trip, could also be a good strategy for maximizing reminiscence.” Campbell added that “we can sometimes avoid the hedonic treadmill” — that tendency to return to our prior happiness level — “by reflecting on and feeling gratitude toward what makes us happy” after the fact, which ties back into the idea of extracting and telling as many stories about your vacation as possible.

The happiness literature also has some important things to say about planning. Kumar said that he’d been wondering for a while whether planning a purchase well in advance “might cause [the purchaser to] derive more utility from their anticipation of the experience” than they would if they planned it at the last minute, he said. “We now have empirical evidence that that’s indeed the case,” he said, in the form of a paper he coauthored with Thomas Gilovich that’s in press at the Journal of Consumer Psychology. “People are excited when they’re looking forward to the satisfaction they’ll get from purchases like vacations,” he said, “and so one way they can extend these pleasurable feelings is by increasing the amount of time and hence the number of opportunities they have to think about, to talk about, and to savor their future experiential consumption.” It’s an intuitive finding, but a useful one for those of us with tendencies toward last-minute planning.

The key takeaway in all of this is that it’s best not to see a vacation simply as a discrete period of time, but rather as something that you will talk and think about a lot both beforehand and, hopefully, for years after the fact. As Kumar put it, “Even though the vacation can seem fleeting — that is, our trips seem to come and go in a flash — we also ‘consume’ our anticipation of our travel experiences and derive utility from discussing them with others after the fact.”