Dopamine and Vacations: 8 tips for enjoying your time off

Vacations can be stressful. Make this one refreshing and relaxing.

Posted Jun 12, 2010

Sara* had just returned from a terrible vacation. "I don't understand," she said. "It seemed like a perfect family trip. It was in a beautiful setting with organized activities for the kids and places where Rick* (her husband) and I could sit and read, or go for long hikes, or take a swim in the lake." I knew that Sara had been anticipating this holiday for months, with a great deal of painstaking planning to make sure that it would be fun for everyone.

So what had gone wrong? As she talked more about it, two problems quickly emerged. First, her sons were at a stage where separation can be tricky. They had refused to go to activities without one of their parents being present. And second, her husband had not realized that he would be without internet or cell phone service. "I still don't get it," she said. "We were supposed to be enjoying a break from our daily life - including from all of the technology we live with nonstop. We had talked about the fact that there wouldn't be television in our cabin. It didn't occur to me that he thought he could still check in with the office every five minutes. "

If Sara had known about dopamine, things might have gone better. In a recent article in the NY Times Matt Richtel explains that we actually become addicted to the "squirt" of dopamine we get from our electronic gadgets, which clarifies why we get bored without them. (see tip #8 ) But there are other reasons vacations don't live up to our expectations. Following are eight suggestions for making your next holiday genuinely restorative, whether you are traveling to a foreign land, sitting by your community swimming pool, or staying home to clean out your garage:

1- Beware of perfectionism. In a recent post on her PT blog, Nancy Darling notes that when we keep comparing ourselves and our experiences to a standard of perfection, we often give up pleasurable activities because they don't seem good enough. On his PT blog Timothy Pychyl  writes that perfectionism comes from unrealistic expectations and contributes to a number of emotional difficulties, including depression, disappointment and low self-esteem.

Here's the truth: vacations are never (or hardly ever) anywhere near perfect! The trick to having a good one is to enjoy the flaws! They may, in the end, be what make it special. At any rate, if you keep your expectations realistic, your time off will be far more rewarding.

2- Know yourself. My husband and I love to visit friends when we travel, but we also like a lot of time to ourselves. So when someone suggests we take a trip together, we politely decline. We do better as a pair than as part of a group. But when we decided that we would like to visit China, we agreed that this was one time when we should go with an organized group - but one that would allow us at least a modicum of independence. We also discussed the possibility that we might need a little time to rest after the trip - this one would not be a relaxing vacation. Accepting and making adjustments for your individual personality and needs helps you manage our expectations and can keep disappointments to a minimum.

3- Know your travel partner(s). If Sara had really thought it through, she would have recognized that Rick would need at least some contact with his office. "He doesn't relax unless he knows things are going smoothly," she acknowledged as we debriefed about the experience. "I should have talked with him about it and together we might have figured out a way that would work for both of us. I knew he wasn't going to become someone else. He is who he is."

Realistic expectations can smooth the way for a far more satisfying time for everyone. A colleague who travels regularly with a group of other women says, "We each do our own thing during the day, either individually or two or three together. Then we come together and make dinner and sit around and gossip. But nobody feels like she has to hang out or be part of the group unless she wants to."

4- Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Make sure everyone is onboard, knows what to expect, and has expressed both their own wishes and their frustrations with the final decisions. This does not mean that everyone will be pleased. In fact, whether you vacation alone, with your best friend, as part of a tour group, or with someone you barely know, you and everyone else involved will be required to compromise. More than once.

5 - Build compromise into the plans. I have a weird inability to stay in a museum for more than an hour. So when I go to an exhibit with someone, we always work out a compromise that allows me to leave after my internal alarm goes off and allows them to stay until they have had enough. Compromise about eating, sleeping arrangements, and so on is necessary; but it only works if all sides feel that the process has been fair, and that they are not the only ones not getting all of their needs met.

With children in the picture, the compromising can feel as though it's all in their favor. You will be giving them an important lesson in life (and vacationing) if you help them make reasonable and age appropriate compromises with you from time to time. Sara realized that everyone would probably have had a far better time if she and her husband had told their sons that one of the adults would stay at the kid activities for part of the day and then, if the boys wanted to, they could come spend the rest of the afternoon with their parents - but that they would have to play quietly for part of that "together" time while the grownups read their books. "That way they would have felt like the decision was their own; but they would also be learning to respect the needs of other people in a way they could actually manage."

6- Planning is crucial. The more you plan, the more you know about your destination, schedule, how you will get where you are going, and what you will be doing, the better prepared you will be for this holiday. And the more prepared you are, the less likely you are to be overwhelmed when, as inevitably will happen, things do not go just the way you wanted.

7 -Flexibility is as important as planning. On the other hand, nothing ever goes exactly as planned. There will be changes. On a recent visit to Spain, my husband got sick the first day and did not fully recover until the day before we left. We had all sorts of day trips planned, but scratched most of them in order to stay close to home and give him time to rest. We ended up making friends with some neighbors, had a low-key, restful holiday and returned feeling completely rejuvenated.

Similarly, rigid inflexibility can lead you to miss out on spontaneous changes in a vacation. One client still regrets having refused to deviate from a travel itinerary in France to join friends on an impulsive visit to see the prehistoric drawings in the caves of Lascaux.  They have since been closed to visitors, so he will never get a chance to see them.

8 - Regulate the level of your stimulation. Most of us know how important it is to keep ourselves fueled with food and sleep on vacation. We also know that we will pay for overdoing rich foods, alchohol, sun and even exercise. Our bodies will rebel (and, surprisingly, so will our minds). It is a price we are sometimes willing to pay. But did you know that on vacation we may also suffer from genuine withdrawal from the stimulation of our electronic gadgets? In that NY Times article, Matt Richtel writes that "juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information" actually stimulates a primitive part of our brains that responds "to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement - a dopamine squirt - that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored." 

Next time Rick will start out with his gadgets and, as he relaxes (which for most of us takes a few days to happen) and finds other things to interest him, he'll gradually put them away.  

The real trick to a satisfying vacation, then, is to find a way to get enough stimulation to allow yourself to relax! You may have to take a lot of time off to find out the best way to do that for yourself!

*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.