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Survey Says: Travel Makes Us Happier

Have a trip coming up? Or even just starting to plan a trip? Chances are you are a significantly happier person as a result.

If you are reading this now, chances are good you’re a hardcore and, more importantly, frequent traveler, and you’ll probably do some traveling within the next few months — and as such you might be a little happier than the rest of the world. A series of intriguing studies has found that people planning or anticipating an upcoming trip tend to rate themselves happier than people who don’t have a trip coming up.

Alas, the high might not last very long: when the trip is over, vacationers return to their baseline happiness levels (sometimes even below pre-trip levels) almost immediately. Until, of course, they start planning another trip.

The main study was led by Dr. Jeroen Nawijn, a senior lecturer in Tourism at the NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. The results: “Vacationers reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness, compared to non-vacationers, possibly because they are anticipating their holiday. Only a very relaxed holiday trip boosts vacationers’ happiness further after return. Generally, there is no difference between vacationers’ and non-vacationers’ post-trip happiness.”

But what about during the trip, and maybe even in the tumultuous hours and days right before a trip, when things often get hairy and quite miserable? Nawijn and his colleagues kept digging; follow along below.

Pre-Trip Planning Is Fun; Coming Home Not So Much

Most trip planners experience an immediate boost in happiness when starting to plan a trip. While pre-trip happiness usually starts at higher levels than that for non-travelers, it really kicks in for as much as eight weeks in advance of the actual trip, according to the study.

However, the afterglow of a trip seems to last a much shorter time; as you can see on the graph linked above, participants seem to report a very quick and steep return to “normal” or worse after a trip. In general, the buzz from a “very relaxed” vacation tends to last maximally for two weeks. After that, vacationers tend to sag below even their lowest happiness levels, at least as compared to the eight-week anticipation period.

However, even after the two-week “crash,” vacationers still tended to report happiness levels higher than those of non-vacationers (both with and without controls for participant income levels and other variables, which did not exhibit strong influence on the study outcomes). The report also cites some older studies that indicate boosts in post-trip health. It seems like a good, solid vacation trip is good for heart and soul alike.

The Length of Trip Doesn’t Matter Once You Get Home

Despite the foregoing, the original study concluded that “returning home involves a swift return to pre-trip happiness levels, independent of the duration of the trip.” That is, the two-week “fade-out” seems to occur irrespective of the length of the trip.

This would seem counterintuitive to us as travelers — shouldn’t a long, relaxing trip have a greater effect than a short, relaxing trip? It seems not to be the case, but Nawijn’s curiosity was piqued by this unexpected finding, and so he launched a new study on levels of happiness during a trip.

Then What About During the Trip?

Does the actual experience of the trip live up to the heightened sense of anticipation? Nawijn cites some studies that indicate some travelers may be happier before the trip than during the actual trip, but is not entirely convinced.

“There is an older study on ‘the rosy view,’ which suggests that people feel worse during vacation, and that anticipation is better,” he notes. “However, that’s not a fair comparison. One would have to compare how intensely people feel certain emotions pre-trip, during and post-trip. If you do that, you’ll see that people feel much better on vacation.”

Because the original study revealed unanswered questions about happiness levels during the actual trip, particularly with respect to the duration of the trip, Nawijn launched a follow-up study; you can see the results in How Do We Feel on Vacation? A Closer Look at How Emotions Change over the Course of a Trip. In general, we are happiest during the middle of a long-ish trip. “There is some sort of inverted U curve for trips of a certain number of days,” Nawijn noted in an email from his home in the Netherlands.

Nawijn found that not all trips are created the same, especially when it comes to length of trip. Nawijn studied trips of differing durations, including seven-day trips, trips of eight to 13 days, and trips of longer than 14 days. In somewhat simplified terms, here is what he found:

  • – Trips of eight to 13 days are ideal, with happiness climbing by day two, and remaining high almost until the end of the trip
  • – Trips of seven days or less tend to start off “happy,” then decline slightly through the end of the trip
  • – Trips of 14 days or more actually seem to show a decline in happiness in the early going, then a steady climb at the beginning of the second week

So it seems that there is a sweet spot for vacation trip duration; anything less than seven days doesn’t allow travelers to sink into their trip deeply enough before they have to start thinking about going home, and trips of more than 14 days seem to require so much effort in the early going that it takes a bit of the fun out of things. In the end, it would seem that a relaxing vacation of eight to 13 days is your best call — book it!

The Last Few Days Before Travel Really Are Worse

Despite the very positive anticipatory period, another recent study by Nawijn, titled Pre-Vacation Time: Blessing or Burden?, found that the last few days before a trip are, well, pretty burdensome. Specifically, the study found that pre-vacation workload and other pre-trip “effects on health and well-being are mostly negative.” The effect seemed to be particularly rough on working women, as the study found that “employees, especially female employees, should try to prevent high workload and homeload prior to vacation as much as possible in order to preserve health and well-being.”

Most of the decline occurred in the last week before travel; that is, two weeks out folks were feeling pretty good, but subsequently “health and well-being decreased significantly from two weeks to one week prior to vacation.”

The decline occurs when the anticipation of all the great things a trip will hold is overwhelmed (albeit temporarily) by the double whammy of trying to dispatch as much work as possible before leaving the office for a vacation and all the last-minute nitty-gritty tasks like packing, online check-in, calling your credit card company and the like.

But those few days of misery seem to be worth the trouble; the study notes that “decreasing health and well-being levels before vacation also raise the question whether a vacation is really ‘worth all the trouble,'” and goes on to evaluate the overall net effect as a positive. That is, the misery of the last few days before travel is ultimately overcome by the enjoyment and benefits found in the planning, anticipation and experience of the trip itself.

Do We Need to Travel to Get the Travel Happiness Effect?

For inveterate travelers, a good, long trip may be the one and only way to get the boost that travel offers, but the original study does include some discussion of how experiences once confined to tourism are now accessible in “everyday life,” which might suggest that folks can engineer this same “vacation” response into their lives by some other means. I asked Nawijn if he thinks we might be able to steal a few days of happiness with a short day or weekend trip; he thought thinks it could be possible, with the right frame of mind, giving some solace to weekend warriors who don’t have eight to 13 days to hit the road.

“The main reasons why people enjoy vacations are increased sense of autonomy (i.e., less structure) and social bonding,” Nawijn said. “So if you can achieve that during a day trip, I don’t see why it shouldn’t make you feel as good as on vacation.” So if you have some short-term escape tactics, especially things that increase your sense of autonomy and social bonding — even simple stuff like working from a cafe on a Friday, or a group run at lunch time — you may be able to tap into the same responses.

How to Soften the Landing (After Your Return Flight Lands)

This list from the website Dumb Little Man offers some good ideas, including landing a day or two before you return to work, taking your time plowing through email, avoiding meetings at first, not starting new projects right away and controlling expectations; it’s worth a read.

But some of the crash is just perception. Nawijn offers that over the long haul, “There is no post-vacation crash/blues/etc. People feel the same as before, but not worse. It may seem like it, because people feel better on vacation. To avoid stress, it’s best to take an extra day off to take care of household tasks, adjust to time zones, etc.”

Looking at all the graphs and data, it would be almost impossible not to conclude that the best antidote to the post-trip blues is simple: start planning another trip!

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