By Karla Starr, published on May 1, 2008 - last reviewed on April 10, 2013
After a vacation, only one thing seems to fade faster than a tan: memories. Forgetting peak experiences, or failing to incorporate them into daily life, is one reason that within a month after people return to work from vacation, all the benefits of time off—decreased stress levels, physical rejuvenation—disappear. Here are a few ways to hold onto the glow.
Mindfully using your mementos, researchers say, can prolong your holiday bliss. Before you hang a map of Italy to capture your stay in Rome, stop to consider what exactly you want to remember about your trip, says Barry Gordon, director of the Memory Clinic at Johns Hopkins University and author of Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life. "The trick is to use cues that evoke specific memories from the vacation, rather than rely on vague souvenirs." A professional shot of the Taj Mahal is nice if you enjoyed the landmark, but a shot from your camera phone is better, even if it's blurry, Gordon says. The key is to use the most personal souvenirs possible.
Researchers say it's also important to control when and how you access your memories. Be careful not to display mementos where the contrast might be too stark. Seeing a photo of a luau in your laundry room might have the negative effect of making your everyday life pale in comparison to the memory it's conjuring, says Jason Leboe, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
So don't redecorate a stressful place (for example, your workspace) to look like Prague or put your photos on an automatic screen saver. Instead, make a timed slide show that you can enjoy when you have a moment to savor it—and not when you're stressed out and don't want a taunting reminder of Aspen. Or put a photo in your wallet and use it to reflect on while decompressing on the train coming home from work. Having a cue where you'll have time to relive and elaborate on the moment will strengthen the memory over time.
Another way to memorialize your trip is "behavioral reenactment, or trying to reconstruct physically and in the environment the same things that you were experiencing when you were on the vacation," suggests Fred Bryant, a professor of psychology at Loyola University and the author of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience.
If you enjoyed your hotel room in Hawaii, give your bedroom a makeover by finding similar curtains or the same bedspread, and hanging the same etchings by the door. Add Tiki torches and shells—better yet, shells you actually found in Maui—to make your back porch resemble your cabana hideaway.
"The things that really elicit evocative memories in people are vision, sound, and smell," Gordon says. Remember the type of music at your favorite French bistro? Listen to those tunes at dinner. Re-create a favorite meal and take time to savor the attendant memory, along with the sauce's aroma.
If you were attached to the scents, even stealing hotel toiletries and putting them in your home bathroom has its merits, Bryant says. "Anything you can use like a time machine will take you back to those moments. That way, they will continue to live."