We all know that vacations are supposed to provide the prototypical “R and R” of rest and relaxation. However, not everyone is able to get the most out of their vacation experiences. Although we tend to believe that longer is better when it comes to time off, it turns out that some people are able to benefit as much from a day as from a month away from their workday routines.
Most vacation advice columns will tell you that the best breaks take you completely away from your daily routines. Unplug and you’ll undoubtedly unwind. However, not everyone can completely unplug or unwind. When it comes to vacation planning, one size definitely does not fit all sizes or, in particular, personalities. These six steps will help you find out how to determine your own vacation personality and, if necessary perform an intervention so that you can in fact find the break that will best refresh you. Several of these steps are based on the Five Factor personality model which highlights the personality traits of Conscientiousness, Openness to Experiences, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and Extraversion.
Step 1: Decide how much you like to plan your vacations
Diagnosis: Some people really like to plan, and others want nothing more than to be escorted around by a knowledgeable family member, friend, or tour guide. If you’re a natural planner (or have grown into the role over time), you can get almost as much fun out of the actual vacation as you can from the planning of it. However, there are undoubtedly other factors that enter into the equation than just being the type of person who likes browsing travel-related websites. Being a good planner requires a personality high in the trait of conscientiousness, or attention to detail.
Treatment: If you hate planning, then don’t do it. For a group vacation, take advantage of the relationship principle of “need complementarity” (i.e. opposites attract) and let the planners plan. If you’re going off by yourself, then do as little as possible to get you there and back, preferably with a place to stay in between, and then let the experiences unfold as they may. If this works for you, then there’s no need to change, but if you repeatedly suffer disastrous consequences of poor planning, either go back to need complementarity (and find a partner who can plan) or learn a few basic travel planning skills.
Step 2: Evaluate how open you are to new experiences
Diagnosis: People who are open to new experiences like to try a variety of places and experiences. They’re the true “innovators” who seek out places they’ve never been to before, get to know the local sights and people, and try as much as possible to expand their minds while they’re on holiday. These individuals tend to feel that they’ve gotten the most benefits from their vacations, in terms of coming away from the experience with the sense of having experienced emotional growth. However, if this isn’t your thing, you’ll only regret that you tried those raw squid eaten by the locals when you would rather just have had a burger and fries.
Treatment: Don’t feel you need to force yourself into having vacations that take you someplace exotic when all you’d really like to do is return to your favorite beach, cabin, or hotel. On the other hand, if you’re unhappy with too much of the same-old-same-old (or your fellow travelers are), try in small steps to expand your travel horizons. Take a few day trips in which you do something completely novel and see if perhaps this makes you more willing to accept a slightly larger change of pace the next time.
Step 3: Honestly decide how agreeable and even-tempered you are
Diagnosis: This step requires a bit more self-scrutiny and honesty. Nobody likes to think that he or she is cantankerous or neurotic. However, some people are one, the other, or both. To have a good time on vacation demands that you roll with the punches. People who are high on agreeableness never seem to get bothered when they encounter problems with fellow travelers, customer service agents, or the many other types of people and situations you come into contact with on vacation. If you find yourself constantly getting irritated by travel delays or unhelpful airline or hotel personnel, this may be a sign that either (a) you really need that vacation or (b) you’re not all that agreeable even in the best of cases. Similarly, being high on neuroticism means that you worry a good deal. There’s plenty to worry about when it comes to taking vacations, especially if you think about all the things that could go wrong. Achieving self-insights into your personality on these two dimensions is therefore a critical diagnostic step for improving your vacation experiences.
Treatment: You may be too agreeable, or you may not worry enough. People who are too agreeable may get taken advantage of and people who don’t worry may not be aware of the real dangers of travel, such as having your wallet stolen by pickpockets. However, many travel-related woes come from situations in which you’ve only made things worse by becoming angry when in fact nothing you can do will change things. The other set of travel woes come from worrying about problems that haven’t happened yet (missing a train or bus) or that have happened and threaten to ruin the rest of your vacation. Your treatment in these cases is to use a method that behaviorists recommend to help people cope with stress in general, which is to practice relaxation. Add to this a cognitive element and tell yourself that no amount of anger or worry will change things. Calm yourself further by trying to see the bright side of the situation, which is a tried-and-true emotion-focused coping technique. Finally, if these don’t work, you can always dip into your support network of your fellow travelers or strangers similarly inconvenienced. Who knows, if you’re lucky one of them may be able to play yin to your yang, and you’ll come out actually feeling ok.
Step 4: Test out your perfectionistic tendencies.
Diagnosis: We all have the myth of the “perfect” vacation. The weather is beautiful, the place is great, the food is awesome, no one in your group argues, there’s no traffic, etc. etc. We all also know that the perfect vacation does not exist. However, if you constantly find yourself measuring up your experiences against this mythological experience, your vacation will be anything but perfect.
Treatment: Some of the above steps may help you get through this phase as well, such as practicing relaxation, seeking support from others, and trying to roll with the punches in general. However, to combat perfectionism, you’ll have to take a more deliberate approach. Tell yourself, and make yourself believe, that you are “on vacation,” and that being on vacation is better –presumably- than not being on vacation. Decide ahead of time that nothing will go seamlessly. If it does, then that’s great, but if not, you’ll be better prepared to handle the adversity that almost invariably affects even the most idyllic of getaways.
Step 5: Find out how much “alone” time you prefer.
Diagnosis: People who are extraverted enjoy vacations that put them into constant contact with other people. They like the chance to hobnob with people they have just met, whether it’s at a shared picnic table or a crowded seat in a bus or van. The introverted prefer having more quiet time and, although they don’t mind being with other people, prefer to spend at least some of their days off by themselves. You probably know where you fall on the introverted-extraverted personality dimension, but if you don’t, you’ll soon find out by gauging how comfortable or uncomfortable you feel in the constant presence of others.
Treatment: Unless you literally are trekking off to a desert locale by yourself, the chances are good that you will spend at least part of your vacation interacting with other people. Therefore, if you’re higher on the introversion end of the spectrum, just make sure that you are giving yourself time to be on your own, exploring your thoughts if not a new city’s highways and byways. The friends and family who travel with you won’t resent this if they truly care about you. On the other hand, if you’re the highly sociable type who craves the company of others, recognize that you need to give the more introverted their space. You, too, may be able to profit from the mental readjustment of spending a little more quiet time with yourself than you normally do.
Step 6. Assess your level of guilt
Diagnosis: People high in guilt feel that there’s something unholy about getting a break from their routine work and family lives. While on vacation, they constantly check their email (beyond an occasional glance or two). They feel that unless they’re doing something “useful” they’re wasting time. In a study assessing vacation’s benefits, Dutch researchers Jessica de Bloom and colleagues (2012) documented what we might expect; namely, that people who worked while on vacation derived fewer benefits during and after the vacation. Some of these “vacationers” put in as much as 4.5 hours of their day doing work-related tasks. Although the researchers didn’t assess guilt levels, I think it’s a safe bet that this extreme form of self-deprivation contributed to their unhappy outcomes.
Treatment: When it comes to guilt, the diagnosis is simple, the treatment not so much. It’s very difficult for people truly convinced that they can’t afford or deserve a break to set their work tasks aside both mentally and physically. The best antidote is, as we’ve already seen in part, to take small steps toward behavior change. Restrict your worktime to small doses, preferably at times of day that are down time for those you’re traveling with, or during periods when you won’t be missing out on the peak of the good sights or activities. You can also use your diligence to your advantage by recognizing the restorative powers of vacation. After all, you do want to be a better worker/mother/father/… or whatever job you’re getting a break from. The vacation is the best way for you to restore your productivity for the times when you need to be performing your best, which is when you are back on your job. Think of your vacation as a way to improve your work-related abilities, and the situation becomes a win-win for everyone.
Whether it’s a day or a month, the right approach to your vacation can give you the psychological boost you seek. Understanding your vacation personality, and performing the right interventions as needed, can bring greater fulfillment both to you and your fellow travelers.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
de Bloom, J., Geurts, S. E., & Kompier, M. J. (2012). Effects of short vacations, vacation activities and experiences on employee health and well‐being. Stress And Health: Journal Of The International Society For The Investigation Of Stress, 28(4), 305-318. doi:10.1002/smi.1434