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Study Shows People Happier Before, Not After Vacation

“I am so looking forward to my vacation.”

Anyone who has ever traveled has certainly spoken these words. Whether that next vacation is a year away or merely days, the prospect of traveling can be enough to combat even the dullest of days. You know the feeling: One second you’re at work, and a moment later you’re wandering a Tokyo market, or lounging on a Caribbean beach. You simply can’t wait to get there.

But a new study suggests it’s this period—the anticipation of a trip—rather than the trip itself that matters most, and that the actual vacation does little to influence one’s happiness.

Researchers surveyed 1,530 Dutch adults, 974 of whom took a vacation during the study period. Here’s what they found: “Those planning a vacation were happier than those not going away, and suggests that this may be due to their anticipation of the break … Following a trip, there was no difference between vacationers’ and non-vacationers’ happiness, unless the time off was very relaxing, in which case the slightly increased happiness was particularly noticeable in the first two weeks back. The effect wore off completely after eight weeks.”

The reasons for this wearing off are pretty obvious. “It is not surprising,” the study concludes, “that trips do not have a prolonged effect on happiness, since most vacationers return to work or other daily tasks and therefore fall straight back into their normal routine fairly quickly.”

I can see this study being somewhat discouraging. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m planning a trip to Spain and France in May, and I cannot wait to go. I’m brushing up on my French (which is horrible) and looking at maps of Barcelona—pretty much anything to make my distant trip more immediate. As the study suggests, it’s exhilarating to know that just a few months from now I’ll be wandering unfamiliar places, eating all sorts of delicious foods, and seeing the sights I’ve been reading and dreaming about.

And then it will all end, and everything will revert back to normal. Time will be marked by how many weeks have passed since I was gawking at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, not how many weeks of anxious anticipation stand between me and being there.

Kind of a downer? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. The study seems to equate happiness (as it relates to travel) with placing distance between one’s day-to-day life and oneself, and associates the undoing of this happiness with assimilation back into the daily routine. But for many, the benefits of travel aren’t simply restorative—our travels become part of us. We hold on memories and experiences, hang travel pictures all over the house, and we share stories and anecdotes over dinner. Heck, I can still remember every single trip I took with my parents as a kid. All these journeys shape us in lasting ways.

And yes, there is sometimes a sense of loss, that dispiriting feeling of, “Man, a week ago I was on a beach without a care in the world.” And I’ve often yearned to return to places I’ve visited—who among us hasn’t? But it’s a big world out there. Coming home means planning a new trip, and yes, getting lost in the anticipation of another adventure.

I’d love to hear what you think about this study, and maybe share some thoughts about why you travel. Thanks!

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