I know, everything’s still a colossal mess, but can we focus on something positive for 1,000 words? There is a good chance we’ll get to travel outside of a 30-mile radius from our homes at some point this year. And for those, like me, who enjoy traveling, that’s pretty exciting.
Those feelings of excitement from the anticipation of travel aren’t unique to this moment in time—research suggests that happiness gained from a vacation is not always associated with the time spent on the vacation itself. In fact, what makes us happy about a vacation takes place both well before, and well after, time spent on the beach in a distant locale.
Planning for a Vacation Often Leads to More Happiness than the Vacation Itself
Last decade, researchers set out to measure the effect that vacations have on overall happiness and how long it lasts. A study published in the journal “Applied Research in Quality of Life” found that the biggest boost in happiness comes from planning a vacation, not taking a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation increased happiness for eight weeks.
Planning 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 with all of life’s experiences, not all moments are created equal on vacation. Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate, 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.”
For example, after a family vacation to Disney World, you likely won’t reminisce about the trip based on the time you spent waiting in line or eating mouse-shaped personal pizzas. It’s more likely that 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 Negative Ones, get Better with Time
Last year, before the pandemic, I attended a conference in New Orleans and my wife flew down to meet me while our kids stayed home with my mom. We had an enjoyable and relaxing getaway.
However, when we touched down at Chicago O’Hare to catch our connecting flight home, we learned that our flight was cancelled due to the storm. It was Saturday and the airline told us the earliest they could get us back was Monday.
While my wife was trying to retrieve our luggage, I rented a car because we decided to drive home. During the process, we met a woman who was also booked on our cancelled flight, 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 my wife talked some sense into me, and the three of us set off on a long drive home.
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 them with laughter and fondness.
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.
About the Author: Jay Harrington is an author, reformed-lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim.