Many of us spend weeks, if not months, looking forward to and planning our big vacations. Time together with your loved ones, especially your closest romantic partner, seems like it will provide the boost you need to get you through your everyday, non-vacation, life. You fantasize about how great each and every day will be whether it’s at the beach, a cabin in the woods, or on a cruise ship. You’re even willing to sacrifice by saving your hard-earned salary throughout the year to be able to afford this getaway. Even if it’s more expensive than you’d like it to be, you figure it still will be worth it.
Thinking back on your last vacation, though, can you honestly say that each and every moment was all that great? Did you and your partner or family never have a single argument? Was there a point when you started to wonder what was going on back at home? Was that small cruise ship cabin starting to feel a little cramped? Were you ever longing for just a little alone time? Do you wish you were taking a "workation" where you could keep tabs on things at the office? According to a recent news story, more and more people are starting to take this option, but it further complicates the vacation-relationship satisfaction issue.
Research on happiness over the course of vacations suggests that your feelings of vacation malaise aren’t just a figment of your imagination. Jeroen Nawijn and colleagues at the Breda (Netherlands) University of Applied Sciences (2013) charted the course of emotional changes across the duration of vacations ranging from 8 to 13 days to see if there is a peak in “holiday happiness” (p. 265). The findings of this study suggest how you can ensure that your vacations do, in fact, help rather than hinder your relationships.
Surprisingly, given the media hype about the importance of vacations to emotional well-being and relationship satisfaction, this is a topic that receives relatively little research attention. As Nawijn et al note “considering the relative importance of emotions in a consumption experience… the small number of studies on emotions in a tourism setting is surprising” (p.266). This fact is even more puzzling given how much people tend to be preoccupied with thoughts about their own time off from work or school. Perhaps everyone just takes it as a given that vacations will boost well-being. so they don’t bother to put the question to empirical test. It may also be the case that relationship researchers, like everyone else, engage in some cognitive dissonance reduction. By the time you’ve invested so much energy and money into your getaway, even when it was less than spectacular, you only let yourself recall the good times. All those disagreeable hours just fade away from memory, at least until the next time you take a trip. It would be far preferable to be able to ensure that your vacation does in fact live up to expectation.
Nawijn continues to investigate emotional well-being and vacations, but his 2013 study’s findings are instructive because of the unique methods he and his fellow researchers employed. As the authors note, the studies that do exist on the topic have tended to treat vacations as a single point in time. Instead, as he found in a prior study, there is a “holiday happiness curve” (p. 267). By adding several controls in the 2013 paper, as well as a more refined measure of happiness, he and his fellow researchers were able to expand on this observation.
Using a sample size of 39 adults (ages 45 to 65 years), divided roughly equally into Dutch and American groups, Niwijn et al tracked daily emotions over the course of vacations lasting at least 5 days during the months from July through September. Although pinging participants throughout the course of their day is the best way to assess daily emotions, this is an impractical approach for studying people on vacation. Instead, Niwijn and his colleagues used the “Day Reconstruction Method” in which respondents write a brief diary about what they did each day in the evening or during the next day. Additionally, they completed a 19-item emotion rating scale for the strongest feeling they had on that particular day. The emotions they rated included a complete range of positive (e.g. awed, joyful, loving) to negative (e.g. angry, ashamed, guilty, disgusted). These ratings were used to generate a positive minus negative average emotions score.
In general, as one would hope, the respondents tended to feel more positive than negative on a day-to-day basis. Dividing the overall sample into thirds, based on length of stay, the authors found no nationality differences, but did observe a significant effect of day within the medium length of stay group, whose vacations lasted between 8 and 13 days. Within this one- to two-week group, emotions were highest within 20 to 59% of their stay (i.e. between days 3 and about 8) and then started to dip, reaching the lowest point in about the last 1-2 days of their trip. The 14-day group showed a slight drop in scores at about the mid-point of their vacation and just when the 1-2 week group began to drift downward, theirs rose and stayed relatively high. The one-week or less group started high and gradually headed down, but not by as much, relatively, as the other two groups. However, the findings for vacation day were significant only for the medium-length vacation group. Interestingly, that medium 1-2 week group also reached the highest scores of all before theirs started to decrease.
Taken together, the Dutch-American sample findings suggest that there are emotional rhythms to vacations, depending on your length of stay. Unfortunately, except for the 2-week and over group, scores at the end of a holiday are lowest at the very end. This means that an unhappy ending can spoil the memory of the good times, at least when you first get home and before vacation nostalgia sets in. Nobody, however, experienced “life transformations and profound personal development” (p. 271) as some travel marketers claim in their ads. Expecting too much out of your vacation could, according to this reasoning, lead to a less satisfactory break than you expected. It’s also important, based on this study, to prepare for the vacation’s ending so that you’re not strung out by having to throw all your belongings randomly into suitcases to pack up to go home, or to have to rush to catch a plane or to avoid traffic.
Knowing that personal happiness varies according to stage of vacation, especially for that mid-range group, can also help you prepare for the emotional ups and downs you experience with your travel partner or partners. The longer-term vacationers in particular seem to go through a bit of a dip during the mid-point of their trip. If everyone in your group is squabbling, it could simply reflect that you’re on similar emotional trajectories and could benefit from some of that alone time.
As the Nawijn et al study showed, most people do experience positive affect while on vacation, as the good definitely outweighed the bad on the emotional rating scale. If you want to keep that balance on the plus side, taking advantage of the study’s findings can make your vacation—and the rest of your year—that much more fulfilling.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Nawijn, J., Mitas, O., Lin, Y., & Kerstetter, D. (2013). How do we feel on vacation? A closer look at how emotions change over the course of a trip. Journal of Travel Research, 52(2), 265-274. doi:10.1177/0047287512465961