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When the Beach Isn't Your Ideal Vacation

Start with your vacation goals when planning your best escape.

Key points

  • Not everyone has the same "perfect" vacation.
  • Consider if your goals are to reconnect with the world, reconnect with special people, or reward yourself.
  • To maximize the benefits of a vacation, take your time in planning it and basking in the glow after you return.

We've all seen the photos of "perfect" vacations. Photos of families gathered in matching chambray shirts in the waves. Hammocks under evergreen trees. Glasses of wine tipped with ancient cobblestones in the background. But, which of these vacations is best for you?

Like most things in life, the best vacation for you depends on what you want out of that time. Below, I describe a few of the possible goals you might have and share what psychological science says about meeting those #vacationgoals.

Restore through awe

Burnout and exhaustion are real for many folks. The sense of having too many things to do and not enough time can actually lead to feelings of disconnectedness. Rather than acts of service and connection with people, our emotions are blunted and everything becomes a drain. A vacation that can help us see connections (even alone) and create perspective is one that gives us a moment to experience awe. Awe is a sweeping feeling that can take your breath away. Feeling awe forces us to step outside ourselves. It doesn't require an exotic location, although it is often associated with grand vistas like the Grand Canyon or famous landmarks, being among a school of swirling, silvery sardines on an IMAX screen can create that sense of wonder. For example, Kim Quinn's lab at DePaul University has found that visiting a science museum can create awe and feelings of connection (Price et al, 2021) Whether a vacation or staycation, if your goal is to reignite emotional engagement with the world, find an opportunity to feel some goosebumps.

Reconnect with loved ones

Sometimes vacations are about reconnecting and creating intimacy with loved ones. This can be romantic intimacy or platonic intimacy. To achieve this, think beyond candlelit dinners and walks on the beach. And, frankly, dining by candlelight is tough at my age (who can see the menu?) and sand is hard on my plantar ankles. Instead, focus on experiential intimacy. As described by Napier (1997) experiential intimacy is the bond felt when people are synchronized, working together towards a common goal, or having a common experience. Going hiking together, building a sandcastle, or making a meal are all shared activities in which conversations can evolve easily and where people can feel that sense of togetherness with their loved ones. Whether at home or on a cruise, find a chance to do something with your loved ones to create a common experience that can serve as fodder for "remember that time..." stories.

Feeling rewarded

Sometimes we indulge and splurge on vacations as a way of rewarding ourselves for hard work. It's another form of retail "therapy." And it works. Choosing and buying things gives us a sense of control and makes us happy. To maximize the happiness benefits of a vacation, take your time in planning it and take time after the trip to bask in the glow. We know from travel and leisure researchers Wei, et al (2019) that saving up for that reward and anticipating the vacation can extend the wellness benefits. In her work, the imagining and planning for the trip, and the creation of photo books afterward, can allow people to experience a sense of control and self-care over an extended time. Regardless of the size of the trip, think carefully about the details and spend time imagining and remembering the trip to maximize your reward.


Price, C. A., Greenslit, J. N., Applebaum, L., Harris, N., Segovia, G., Quinn, K. A., & Krogh-Jespersen, S. (2021). Awe & Memories of Learning in Science and Art Museums. Visitor Studies, 24(2), 137-165.

Napier, A. Y. (1999). Experiential approaches to creating the intimate marriage. The intimate couple, 298-327.

Wei, X., Ma, E., Jiang, K., & We, L. (2019). Pre-travel anticipation as a catalyst of happiness---do demographics matter?. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 40, 21-30.