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How to Get the Most Out of Your Vacation

Vacations shouldn't be stressful.

Vacation time is precious, and most people don’t get nearly enough of it. So how can you make the most of the time you do have? Research suggests that these eight strategies may help.

1. Savor the anticipation. A 2010 study found that people experienced a significant boost in happiness while planning their vacation, but most people’s happiness levels dropped back to baseline shortly after the trip, suggesting that the anticipation of the trip had a more powerful impact on happiness than the trip itself. The take-away? When possible, plan trips far enough in advance so that you have a chance to enjoy looking forward to them. And when planning surprise trips for others, consider giving them some hints to get them excited about what’s to come.

2. Don’t overschedule. Especially when exploring a new location, it’s tempting to want to fit in as many activities as possible, but overbooking yourself and rushing from place to place can be stressful, leading you to need a vacation from your vacation. In the study described above, the researchers found that one subset of participants experienced more enduring post-vacation happiness boosts (around two weeks): those who rated their vacation as “very relaxing."

3. ...but do prepare. Not only can taking the time to thoughtfully prepare for your trip increase your anticipatory pleasure, it can also reduce the likelihood that everyday hassles (e.g., mosquitos, drug store runs, spending hours looking for lodging) will get in the way of enjoying your vacation. The problem is, when anticipating big trips and other big purchases we have a tendency to overlook the nuisances that may arise. This is a good thing when it comes to maintaining pre-trip excitement, but not so good when it comes to the trip itself. Remembering to pack essentials and make basic travel arrangements beforehand can help to reduce stress when you arrive.

4. Avoid the work sandwich. For many people, the weeks right before and right after a vacation are so jam-packed with work that it can poison the vacation. Working overtime before the trip can leave you exhausted instead of energized, and spending your vacation dreading your return to pages of unread emails defeats the purpose of putting up that away message in the first place. While it may be difficult to avoid being sandwiched by work, there are ways to minimize its impact. One approach is to space out extra work over a longer time period so that you’re not pulling all-nighters days before the trip. Another is to tell colleagues about your vacation far in advance to make sure that they know not to send requests right before or during your trip. Finally, practicing mindfulness may help you stay “present” during your vacation and keep work-related thoughts at bay.

5. Take lots of pictures, but first take everything in. It may seem like the best way to preserve memories of a trip, but research suggests that the act of taking photos can actually impair memory. To overcome this effect, try to take in an experience with all of your senses before reaching for your camera—or do an activity twice, once camera-free and then with an eye for good shots. Clearly there are some situations that call for acting fast and capturing a moment before it’s gone, but if we treat every moment like that we may end up missing out.

6. Make a vacation playlist. Photos aren’t the only way to record your vacation: Music is a powerful elicitor of memory, particularly emotional memory. A vacation-specific playlist can help preserve the relaxed, carefree feeling of being on vacation—listening to it later will transport you back in time. Another way to record your memories non-visually is through scent: During your vacation, use soap, lotion, and other products that you usually don’t use so that the scents are unique to the vacation, and then revisit them post-trip when you’re in need of a happiness boost.

7. Choose vacations that you genuinely want to take. As with many things in life, vacation choices can be subject to social pressure. When considering different vacation options, ask yourself to what extent you’re considering something because it seems like the kind of vacation you “should” be taking or the kind that would impress other people. Where would you want to go if no one else knew or cared? Whether you choose to lounge on the beach all day, go car camping, or take a money-saving staycation, the important thing is to make a choice that reflects your intrinsic desires rather than extrinsic pressures. And if your preferences differ from those of your travel companions, find a destination where you can all do the activities you like, or alternate choosing destinations.

8. Disconnect from the internet—and connect with the people around you. Vacations are a great opportunity to connect with family and friends in a way that isn’t always possible in everyday life. Research suggests that traveling together can strengthen bonds, improve communication, and even reduce the likelihood of divorce. To make sure you reap these benefits, leave your devices at home, or at least turn them off.

What else can you do to enhance your enjoyment of vacations? Take more of them, and do your part to change work culture so that other people feel comfortable taking more time off as well. A recent survey found that 41% of American took zero vacation days in 2014 and that most people took fewer than ten; research suggests that people avoid vacations because they fear getting behind on work or losing their jobs. This pattern hurts not only physical and mental health, but also productivity.

More from Juliana Breines Ph.D.
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