“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
“The roots of vegetables … attach them fatally to the ground,” the philosopher George Santayana wrote in his 1964 essay “The Philosophy of Travel.” “They are condemned like leeches to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them at the particular spot where they happen to be stuck.” I don’t know why Santayana was so hateful toward vegetables, but I understand what he means: that to travel is to be fully human.
Clearly, millions of Americans agree: Nearly a quarter say what they miss most from before the pandemic is travel. Now that COVID-19 case numbers remain low and more than half of American adults are fully vaccinated, the country is looking to the summer travel season with great gusto. In a survey of 2,000 Americans fielded by Motel 6 this spring, 60 percent of respondents said they have a stronger desire to take a trip this year than in previous years. Nearly everyone I meet asks if I have summer vacation plans, a question that just a couple of years ago would have sounded quaintly European.
After so many months of travel restrictions, the pressure is on to have a vacation that isn’t just okay—we need our first big post-quarantine sojourn to be great. To that end, I propose a quick guide to designing the happiest possible summer travel. Everyone wants different things from their vacations, but the research offers some universal clues about what sorts of holidays will help you most joyfully shed your inner vegetable.
If the end of the coronavirus shutdowns stimulates more vacation travel than normal, it may simply return Americans to the late 20th century, when American adults took, on average, 20.3 vacation days a year, according to the U.S. Travel Association. By 2018, the annual average had fallen by 14 percent, to 17.4 days. And lest you think this is all due to rotten work rules, Americans left 768 million vacation days voluntarily unused in 2018. Some of this is company-specific, in places that reward people for leaving their days off unused, but I believe much of it can be blamed on a national culture that valorizes work.
Skipping vacation may be common, but it’s a mistake for well-being. In 2012, a study published in the journal Annals of Tourism Research showed that vacations increase perceived quality of life for most people more than health, money, family, and work, losing out only to spiritual life. Of course, one needs health and money for vacation, and being with people we love is key to a good getaway, so these things can’t be effectively disentangled. This effect may be short-lived, as we will see below. But temporary or not, the big point remains that most people find that vacations enhance their happiness.
In order to ensure that your particular trip makes you happy—and to avoid a vacation from hell—you have to understand the characteristics of vacations that tend to bring the greatest enjoyment, satisfaction, and sense of purpose. Here are nine rules to follow for a great vacation this summer.
1. Discern your motive.
Different people enjoy different vacation spots, depending on their tastes, their associated memories, and even their psychological wiring. One study shows, for example, that introverts tend to prefer the mountains while extroverts prefer the beach. (This seems obvious, considering which group is more likely to be comfortable getting almost naked in front of strangers.)
One way to find your ideal spot, based on a 2015 study of Danish tourists, is to start by identifying the vacation motive that most appeals to you: exploration, escape, seeing family and friends, prestige, nature, or history and heritage. (One caveat: Based on rule No. 6 below, if your motive is prestige, best to reconsider.) No matter your motive, you will get more from your vacation if you share it with the people you love.
2. Savor the anticipation.
One of the happiest parts of vacation is the planning. Dutch and Chinese research shows that vacationers already see a significant happiness advantage over non-vacationers in the weeks leading up to their holiday. In fact, a large body of evidence indicates that one of the greatest sources of happiness from a pleasurable activity is its anticipation. Some neuroscientific research suggests that anticipation stimulates one of the brain’s reward-processing regions called the nucleus accumbens. Use that to your advantage by setting up your vacation agenda in advance, and studying up on your destination. But keep in mind that too much anticipation can backfire if you imagine your vacation will put you in a state of constant bliss.
3. Manage your expectations.
Time away may raise your perceived well-being, but that high doesn’t usually last. In truth, the satisfaction we gain from getting away tends to wear off fairly quickly. A 2010 study of Dutch vacationers found that while on holiday, people are healthier, less stressed, more energetic, more satisfied, and in better spirits. Unfortunately, those effects largely disappeared during the first week back at work. Some studies find a longer-lasting effect, but annual vacations are clearly not a long-term fix for what ails us in our daily lives.
4. Break your trip into vacation-ettes.
One way to deal with the fleeting afterglow of a trip is to take more frequent, shorter vacations. That way, the pleasant punctuations in well-being will be spread out over time, even if they fade. Research shows that this strategy can bring vacationers a higher life satisfaction and a better mood overall. This might mean opting for multiple long weekends at the Jersey Shore instead of one epic journey to Borneo. Maybe that sounds wrong, or even boring, especially if you’ve been to the Jersey Shore many times. If so, your mind could be tricking you into overweighting novelty in your happiness calculus.
5. Take fewer pictures.
Experimental research from 2019 showed that when people were engaged in highly enjoyable activities, they typically had more fun when they did not take pictures. The authors speculated that, by trying to document their experience, the participants unwittingly distracted themselves. Taking a million pictures on vacation so that in the future you can reminisce about the past is a great way to miss out on the present.
6. Don’t post.
If you’re dead set on photographing your trip, make sure you’re doing it to savor the experience later, not share it on social media now. Research published in 2018 in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that taking pictures with the intent to share them on social media leads people to enjoy their experiences less because it increases “self-presentational concern.” In other words, you are distracted from the beauty of the beach and fun with your family by worrying about how you look to others. Take a vacation from concern about what other people think.
7. Leave work at home.
Vacation can be hard on workaholics. One way they sometimes cope is to take along a little work, with an excuse such as “This way, emails won’t pile up.” Don’t do it. This strategy won’t just lower your satisfaction during the trip; you’ll also have a worse vacation hangover when you come back. In a study in the journal Stress and Health, researchers found that engaging in work-related activities lowered the positive effects of vacation measured one, three, and 10 days after “returning” to work. Taking a mental break from work is one of the main points of vacation; we fail to achieve that goal when we are unwilling to disengage.
8. Come home early.
To prolong the happiness benefits of vacationing, researchers have found that easing back into your work routine is better than traveling up to the very last second. One study of Austrian tourists found that stress-free days at home are more highly correlated with a sense of recuperation than even the vacation days spent away from home. This suggests that you should come home before the weekend rather than returning on a Sunday with a full workweek ahead. Leo Tolstoy once said, “Happiness consists of living each day as if it were the first day of your honeymoon and the last day of your vacation.” By this he presumably did not mean that you should feel scared and stressed out, but rather hopeful and rejuvenated. You have a better chance of doing so if you don’t spend the final hours of your trip dreading what awaits you the second you step off the plane.
9. Brace yourself when you return.
If all goes well and you have a great vacation, you will have increased your enjoyment and life satisfaction over your status quo. That’s the good news. The bad news is that coming back to ordinary life might be surprisingly disappointing, like eating a strawberry after a piece of candy. A 2013 study from Purdue University found that vacationers can become less content with their friends, home, interpersonal relationships, neighborhood, and even themselves after returning.
The best way to prepare for this letdown is to understand that such a reaction is to be expected, and not necessarily an indication that something in your ordinary life is seriously amiss. I have a policy of not making any significant changes in my life for at least two weeks after vacation, to allow time for my happiness meter to return to normal. You might want to try setting similar rules for yourself. After all, the goal is not just a great post-quarantine holiday, but a post-pandemic routine that is happier too.