One of the holy grails of modern psychology is figuring out what makes people happy. The thinking goes, “If we know what makes people happy, people can then do more of that thing and increase happiness in their own lives.” Makes sense.
We’ve noted previously how an experience — such as a vacation or going out to dinner — is more likely to increase happiness than buying a material gift. The reasoning behind this is that experiences create (hopefully fond) memories, which can be later recalled and enjoyed again. While you may also enjoy a gift, it just doesn’t seem to have the same impact that an experience does.
But research published last week demonstrates that this finding be more complicated than we originally thought.
That research by Nawijn and colleagues (2010) found no significant differences in happiness levels between a group of adults who went on vacation and those who did not. The researchers did find that those planning a vacation were happier than those not going away. They suggest that this may be due to their anticipation of the break.
This is in keeping with previous research that has found that the anticipation of an event is more evocative (and experienced with more emotion) than thinking back upon that event later on (Van Boven & Ashworth, 2007). Like most things in life, imagining something — in this case, the future — is usually better than the actual thing we end up experiencing. Our imaginations seem to be richer and more positive — idealist, even? — than life could ever be.
In a review of the research on the New York Times’ Well blog, Tara Parker-Pope noted in her entry, How Vacations Affect Your Happiness:
One reason vacations don’t boost happiness after the trip may have to do with the stress of returning to work. And for some travelers, the holiday itself was stressful.
“In comments from people, the thing they mentioned most referred to disagreements with a travel partner or being ill,” Mr. Nawijn said.
This is in agreement with previous research examining these questions in a little more depth. Fritz & Sonnentag (2006) found that — not surprising — negative thinking about work while on vacation, or having to deal with a lot of vacation-related hassles, also results in less happiness after coming back from vacation. And returning to one’s workload?
In addition, the detrimental effects of workload immediately after vacation on performance-related outcomes and — to a lesser extent — well-being, indicate that the pile of work that the employee expects on his or her return consumes a lot of the resources gained during vacation.
In other words, thinking about all the work waiting for you upon your return can indeed impact your happiness while on vacation.
But the new research stands in contrast to at least one previous study on vacations and the measurement of subjective well-being (what psychology researchers call happiness). Gilbert & Abdullah (2004) found that vacations did increase happiness in vacation-goers, but they found the effect to be small.
And of course, there are cultural differences when it comes to vacation-taking as well. Previous research has examined these differences and found that different cultures relate to and have different expectations about taking a vacation. This may be relevant, as the newest study was done on Dutch adults.
So when taking a vacation, here’s some things to keep in mind to maximize the potential for happiness:
- Take your time planning the vacation. This may be the most enjoyable part of the trip for many, as you can imagine all the things you plan on experiencing. (The actual experience might leave something to be desired.)
- Ban work-related thoughts while on vacation. The more people think about work while on vacation, the less happy they seem to be. Banish such thoughts while on holiday.
- Plan down to the detail. While many people don’t put much planning into their vacations, research suggests that the more you can minimize vacation-related hassles, the happier you’ll be. Such hassles can be minimized by careful and thorough planning ahead of time.
- Take a page from the mindfulness movement and actually be on vacation while on vacation. We spend so much time on automatic pilot or not really spending much conscious thought on being in the moment, it helps to really stop, think, and experience the moment you’re in. Especially while on vacation.
- Memories last forever. Vacations can increase happiness long-term if you have positive experiences that in turn create positive memories. Consider leaving the camcorder and camera at home, and enjoy a vacation where the only pictures you take are those you’ll store in your mind the rest of your life.
Fritz, C. & Sonnentag, S. (2006). Recovery, well-being, and performance-related outcomes: The role of workload and vacation experiences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 936-945.
Gilbert, D. & Abdullah, J. (2004). Holidaytaking and the Sense of Well-Being. Annals of Tourism Research, 31(1), 103-121.
Nawijn, J., Miquelle A. Marchand, M.A., Veenhoven, R., & Vingerhoets, A.J. (2010). Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier After a Holiday. Applied Research in Quality of Life. DOI: 10.1007/s11482-009-9091-9.
Van Boven, L. & Ashworth, L. (2007). Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(2), 289-300.