In the 2015 summer flick Vacation, Rusty Griswold decides to drive his family across country to the fictional theme park Walley World, just as his father Clark (Chevy Chase) did 30 years earlier in National Lampoon’s Vacation. The movie probably wasn’t such a good idea — it bombed at the box office and the collective critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes was a dismal 26 percent. But in real life, the idea of Rusty revisiting the vacation spot of his youth is brilliant. It turns out, taking a nostalgia trip is good for you.
When you go back to a happy place from your past — whether it’s a place you visited as a child or one you took your own children to as an adult — good memories overtake your brain.
“In this situation, the unconscious mind does not know the difference between the present and the past,” says Dr. Wendy Nickerson, a Florida psychologist who founded International Health Coaching Enterprises.
And the “happy hormones” experienced the first time are re-triggered.
Taking a nostalgia vacation can help adults feel more optimistic about the present and the future.
“They may recall their child in awe when seeing the ocean for the first time or their screams of laughter as they chased squirrels around the trees at a national park campsite,” Nickerson says. “When this happens, oxytocin is immediately released throughout their bodies, creating a sensation of happiness and contentment.”
The benefits go even deeper than that. Taking a nostalgia vacation can help adults feel more optimistic about the present and the future, according to a 2013 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, because they help us put things into perspective.
“When we can learn to be in acceptance of times gone by, we are freed up to experience feelings of great gratitude and are able to see the bigger picture and legacy of the divine unfolding of our lives,” Nickerson says. “We begin to feel appreciative for the things that we did right as parents and the inherent gifts that we have passed down to our children. This type of nostalgia vacation has the propensity to activate this grander and divine acceptance and feelings of inner peace.”
A road trip may offer purely physical benefits, too. A study from UC Berkeley suggests that the positive emotions we experience when looking at the breathtaking natural beauty of say, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park, can actually lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
And the more one experiences happy and peaceful emotions, the more one experiences good health, both mentally and physically.
Of course, sometimes a vacation “remake” doesn’t match expectations. “It is highly unlikely that the experience will be similar to that when the trip was taken in childhood, says Dean McKay, professor of the department of psychology at Fordham University. “Consider the vacation an opportunity to write new memories of the place. Be sure to schedule new experiences of the place alongside the activities that made it special to begin with.”
And even if you’ve never experienced the thrills of riding cross-country in a station wagon, you can still plan a vacation that taps into those memories of yesteryear. Here are four destinations sure to spark old memories while creating new ones:
Visit the park in early February or mid-September when the crush of families is slightly less crushing. Stay in a resort that caters to adults and has a view of the park’s light show. Don’t miss Epcot Center — it was designed to engage and intrigue people of all ages, and you can eat and drink your way around the World Showcase.
Legoland parks have a rule prohibiting adults sans children. However, some of them, including the ones in Dallas and Boston, have adult nights that offer fun activities for big kids who still love the colorful building blocks. Really, Legos are ageless, aren’t they?
Knights in shining armor, ladies-in-waiting, fairies and elves. Playing pretend at a Renaissance Faire can help you unleash your creativity and even help you become more comfortable with taking risks, says David Deal, who runs a consulting company by day and performs in the Faire by night. “Visiting the Faire is like watching a great Pixar movie. Both grownups and children can enjoy the story lines and experiences.”
Many of us grew up wanting to go to Space Camp, and now we have the chance. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., has a two-night training course for adults. Construct and launch rocket models, train on a simulator, and learn about the history of space exploration. The center even offers a team-building experience for businesses.