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Can Your Vacation Make You Happier?

How to get the most out of your trip before, during and after it

By Lisa Fields

Vacationing can make you happy, but your trip is only part of the vacation experience. If you plan correctly, you can begin enjoying your getaway well before you leave and continue enjoying it long after you return.

Credit: Adobe Stock

The way that you think about your vacation is key: Keeping it at the forefront of your mind before you depart and after you return can help you build eager anticipation and recall fond memories.

“We are our experiences,” said University of Chicago happiness researcher Amit Kumar. “Experiences become our memories, so investing in ones that will impact your identity in meaningful ways is likely to be fruitful in terms of advancing happiness.”

People are happier when they choose travel over other purchases — even coveted flat-screen TVs and fancy jewelry — likely because the vacation experience is more meaningful than accumulated items that eventually clutter up the house, according to Cornell University researchers.

“We tend to talk to others more about [vacation] purchases that reflect our sense of identity,” Kumar said. “In doing so, these purchases can then become even larger parts of our identity.”

To get the most out of your vacation, try these tactics:

Before You Go

The moment that you purchase airline tickets, reserve a hotel room or book a guided tour, you’re in vacation mode, even if your trip is months away. The more time you spend eagerly anticipating your future getaway, the happier you can become.

“People get more happiness and enjoyment from planning and anticipating a vacation than from remembering and reliving a vacation,” said Leaf Van Boven, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The trick is to make it fun, not like work.”

You’re more likely to think about your upcoming trip often if you have specific activities planned. It doesn’t matter whether you plan to climb the Spanish Steps in Rome, meet your old college roommate for coffee or dine in a swanky restaurant. If it’s exciting to you, you’ll talk about your plans with people before you go, which gets you excited for the vacation.

“We consistently find that one reason people derive so much satisfaction from their trips, their meals at restaurants and the events they attend is because these experiences lend themselves to social interaction,” Kumar says. “People are happier about their purchases during the planning phase when they're having conversations with others about them — about all they're looking forward to doing.”

If you’re still working, consider whether you’d prefer one long trip or several shorter trips per year before you book any flights. Some people prefer several shorter vacations, so they aren’t slammed with a week's worth of tasks to make up when they return.

“Longer isn’t necessarily better,” said happiness researcher Jaime Kurtz, author of The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations. “You won’t remember seven days at the beach instead of five.”

While You’re There

When you're on vacation, appreciate the scenery, the company, the change of pace from the ordinary. Enjoy yourself in the moment, even if your actual experiences are different than you imagined they would be.

“Truly enjoyable vacations aren’t ruined by failing to meet expectations,” Van Boven said. “Any life event could be undermined by great expectations. We really need to enjoy experiences for what they are, not for what they are not.”

Choose activities that meet your comfort level, too.

“Recent work suggests that the types of experiences older and younger consumers enjoy are likely to differ,” Kumar said. “For younger people, the thrill of something exhilarating might reflect their sense of self, while a simple meal out may be more identity-relevant for an older person.”


Socialize as much as possible on your vacation. This may be easier to do if you’re part of a group tour, but if you’re traveling alone, chat with other tourists, museum employees or park rangers.

“On average, experiences that cultivate social relationships are more likely to bring longer-lasting, more enduring happiness than those that don't,” Kumar said.

Being open-minded to different experiences can add levels of enjoyment to your trip.

“Trying new things with other people while traveling could be wise,” Kumar said. “It will help shape your identity, prompt social interaction and probably make for a great story to tell and re-tell long after the experience has ended.”

Once You Return Home

After you’ve done the laundry and restocked the fridge, don’t revert to life as usual: Spend time poring over your vacation photos and thinking about the fun you had.

“Go back through photos and start the process of reflecting,” Kurtz said. “Think about what you liked about yourself and your family dynamic while traveling. If you felt happier or more energized and if your family got along better than usual, ask yourself why. Can any of the potential causes of your happiness be incorporated into daily life?”

Print a few images that remind you of the joy you felt on vacation,and display them around your home and office, so you’ll see them often.

“Acquiring and displaying pictures and mementos is a great way to prolong the joys of vacation,” Van Boven said. “We can learn to forestall the forgetting processes by keeping reminders around to help us relive those otherwise forgotten moments.”

Meeting friends for dinner to tell them about your trip can extend your enjoyment of the vacation.

“Research suggests that both the storyteller and the listener would benefit in a hedonic sense from these sorts of conversations,” Kurtz said.

Remember that even though you’ve returned home, your vacation memories will always be with you.

“We might not always love it when our vacations come to an end, but they live on in the stories we tell,” Kumar said. “If people discuss what they did on their travels, they can continue reaping the benefits of their vacations.”

Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest. Read more of her work at Read More
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