How to Make Your Vacations Bring You Happiness

Back in February I reported on research that planning vacations generated the greatest amount of happiness, much more so than being on vacation and that the happiness effect from vacation wore off quickly upon returning to real life.

Via Marginal Revolution comes more research on what kinds of vacations make us happiest.

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before. And though it may feel unnecessary, it’s important to force yourself to actually take the time off in the first place — people, it turns out, are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable things like vacations as unpleasant ones like paperwork and visits to the dentist.


Much of my own approach and advice is consistent with the lessons of the article.

Taking lots of trips means less pressure on any given trip to get down to relaxation quickly, and less pressure to be refreshed.

Don’t try to do too much, if you take plenty of trips then each one doesn’t have to be perfect and if you don’t do everything in one place don’t worry you can come back.

Make travel part of the trip. If you aren’t an expert, work with one. Too many disaster trips reported to Chris Elliott that could have been saved with a bit of better planning. But you want to make sure you have reasonable connections on reliable carriers with plenty of backups in place in case things go awry. Long-haul coach travel is tough, I suspect that folks with lots of miles willing to spend them on premium classes of service find the trip itself much less stressful than average, I know I do.

And don’t go for average!

Looking back, what matters far more is the intensity of sensation, whether it’s excitement or pain or contentment. And it’s not the overall average of the experience that people remember, but how they felt at the most intense moments, combined with how they felt right as the experience ended. Psychologists call this the “peak-end rule.”
(Perhaps I just rather liked this article because it appeals to my priors, I’ve argued here and elsewhere that people tend to underinvest in peak experiences.)

Even after following all of this advice, though, it’s possible to become blase’ about it all, you do everything perfectly and make the most of your time but it’s how you always travel so it no longer feels special.

One consistent research finding is that people have a stubborn unconscious ability to adapt to their circumstances, whether those circumstances are good — like marrying their true love — or bad, like getting divorced. Whether they want to or not, people quickly begin to take things for granted.
I’ve experienced this international first class with the best suites and great tour guides and lovely spas piled on top of wonderful meals. They’re great but nothing like the first early times. They’re my ‘normal’.

The counterintuitive solution, the article suggests, is something I’ve long adopted:

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.
Many folks find it odd how much work I do on vacation, I usually tell them I’d rather be working from the beach in Thailand than my office! And folks usually nod in agreement. Still, protecting the ‘me time’ of vacation may not be the best strategy, I find that I plug in and catch up a little bit in between beaches and massages, I feel comfortable knowing that things are in order and that I won’t be so overwhelmed as to kill my vacation buzz when I come back plus each new bit of relaxation and enjoymen feels fresh rather than just another hour staring at the ocean.

I also don’t stay at a given hotel property more than maybe 5 days tops, I begin to get bored with the same relaxation routine, I’ll change cities and venues to break things up and give myself new sensations (not to mention new choices from the breakfast buffet!). I love trips with ‘multiple parts’ to them, several unique adventures. One recent trip combined Manila with the beach in the Philippines, Macau, and London — four distinct places over two weeks though with the shortest amounts of time in Manila and London.

The best advice, I think, is just to accunulate large amounts of miles so that you can take plenty of trips to far aaway places as often as possible in premium classes of service!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Coach might be the only option many of us have to best use our few FF miles for more than an infrequent longer vacation. And I find that I can tolerate longer stretches in coach if I’m with my spouse than flying alone.

    As for having relaxing fun planning a trip, I choose to plan things myself. I, personally, have a much more rewarding time than if I just pawn off the planning to an agent of some sort. If someone else plans it all for me then I’m missing out on some of the buildup excitement of taking a trip.

  2. If planning vacations generates the most happiness, you must the happiest man in the world. (or perhaps The Most Interesting Man in the World?)

    Amen to lots of trips to far away places in premium cabins!

  3. I have always enjoyed planning my own trips that started many years ago and find it gratifying when I finish a trip that I completely planned myself. I loved doing it so much that I turned it into a part time business for myself.

    When I read those Chris Ellott stories, it usually involves people that think their experts in travel, but have no idea what is going on or do not read the fine print. I feel bad for them because most of the problems could be prevented if they had a clue of what is going on. Most think that anyone can plan a vacation, but outside of your basic trip, they can be complex. I always tell people if they are skeptical in using in an agent, would you repair your own car if you had no idea what you were doing? If no, would you plan a trip by yourself is you had no idea what you are doing? Both are investments and need to be made wisely.

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