What is vacation good for?

by on June 29, 2010 at 4:01 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Drake Bennett writes:

They found that in all three cases, the respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

A recent Dutch study had a more striking finding. Looking not at vacation memories, but measuring general happiness level through a simple three-question questionnaire, the researchers found that going on vacation gave a notable boost to pre-vacation mood but had hardly any effect on post-vacation feelings. Anticipation, it seems, can be a more powerful force than memory.

Here is much more.  I liked this sentence:

The most effective way to inoculate a vacationer against the deadening power of adaptation, however, may be the most counterintuitive – to break it up, to interrupt it with real life.

In other words, bring work.  I call it "taking a work vacation."

For the pointer I thank David Archer.

1 Dan in Philly June 29, 2010 at 7:56 am

You spend about 1% of your life or less on vacation. You spend half of your adult life at work, about a third or so on family and home things, and the rest in personal hobbies. It really isn’t a shock that vacations don’t have a lot of impact on overall happiness.

If 99% of your life makes your miserable, 1% won’t make much of a difference, no matter how good it is. And vice versa, of course.

2 Craig June 29, 2010 at 9:11 am

The way to enjoy a vacation is to 1) keep expectations low. Example: figure out how you could be happy if it rained the entire time. Then if/when it doesn’t, you’ll be even happier. 2) Avoid anyplace that requires waiting in line more than 1 hour, as that will raise expectations and make disappointment more likely. 3) Realize that the best part of a vacation is often the unplanned serendipitous encounter; so leave flexibility in your plans to allow for that. 4)Explore and get away from work or you will miss out on the details.

3 mdb June 29, 2010 at 9:37 am

Free time is the key to any vacation. Otherwise it is just like work. A longer vacation with 1/3-1/2 of it free time is best. You stay engaged and anticipate throughout the experience. People, in my opinion, over plan vacations.

4 DP Roberts June 29, 2010 at 10:31 am

100% true for me.

I just got back from a “vacation.” I counted down the hours until I got off work. I nearly missed my flight because of traffic and had a rental car SNAFU when I arrived.

The week was dreadful. Everything was expensive despite making prior plans to find bargains. The crowds were annoying. I paid for a week of public transit and later found out there was a free shuttle to where I was going.

With three days left in a seven day trip, I was ready to come home but the travel plans were unchangeable.

I had left a chilly home and entered torrid heat. Despite eating light and running I gained weight anyway.

Leaving from the airport, though, I saw all the people arriving and wished I could wind back time and start again. I’m not sure, though, that the results would have been different.

I came home not refreshed but exhausted and a pile of tasks to do at work and home. I did not sleep well my first night back and I went to work very tired.

I needed a vacation to recover from my vacation.

Disappointment = Reality < Expectations Reality is often only partially in our control so expectations are the key to happiness. If "disappointed" means something did not turn out as we expected, then when things turn out right why don't we say we were "appointed?"

5 Meds June 29, 2010 at 11:19 am

I try to explain this to my wife all the time. She thinks I am mental that I enjoy the anticipation more than anything else. This mentality applies to more than just vacation time. I find this with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes even attending concerts and events.

6 Dustin Coates June 29, 2010 at 12:02 pm

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”

A quote from Winnie-the-Pooh. Oof. But it works.

7 The Other Eric June 29, 2010 at 12:10 pm

This is why all of my recent vacations have been to regions amply stocked with microbreweries. Nothing says “relaxing vacation” like sipping a really good IPA on the waterfront in Halifax or Lake Michigan or…

8 Rich Berger June 29, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I hate articles that use “we” and “our” as if everyone has to think that way. I associate that approach with a left outlook, which makes it far easier to dictate how others should live their lives.

The Other Eric – you got a point there. I am going to Portland and Seattle in July and I definitely want to sample the local products.

9 John June 29, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Now I’m REALLY stressed about my vacations. Must maximize utility. Must maximize hedonic points. Must maximize memories.

Can we quantify all this? I need to know objectively that my vacations are better than economists’ vacations. Otherwise I’ll be depressed.

10 liberty June 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm

“What is vacation good for?”

Only an economist would ask this.

11 Rahul June 29, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I see three phases:

pre-vacation: high happiness (anticipation)
immediate post-vacation: irritable
long-term post-vacation: subdued happiness (nostalgia)

After a sufficiently long time almost any notable event I went through seems happy. The importance of vacations is to generate these distinct memories.

12 lisa June 29, 2010 at 11:53 pm

are they looking at short american vacations, i.e 1 week or less, or longer european type vacations?

in my opinion you need at least two weeks to start to form a vacation routine and purge the mind of rat race left behind.

13 SAP Training UK June 30, 2010 at 6:38 am

Complete Rest and full enjoyment with family and friends.

What more you want??

14 Sara F July 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I also disagree with this blanket assessment. I find that I’m least happy right after the vacation, but even if there are snags, I tend to be in a high emotional state both before and through the trip. I always attributed this to excitement and a positive outlook towards traveling itself. I love taking trips and traveling, and when a snag hits I generally find the bright side because it’s in my nature. I don’t always act the same way when not on vacation – the trip itself keeps me in this mood.
I always figured I wasn’t alone in this.

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