Summer. To some, it means long days, an annual family trip or idling away long lazy afternoons at home. To others, it simply means remembering to layer when the office AC reaches subzero temps. For most, summer conjures ideas, if not real plans, of an enjoyable vacation in a place far, far away. And, according to science, this is a very good thing. Our health and wellness depend on our ability to unplug from everyday work stresses and recharge our batteries. And we are in dire need of a respite from work.
A stressed workforce, with its multitude of problems that include absenteeism, accidents and diminished productivity, is costing the U.S. industry roughly $300 billion annually. Yet, the U.S. remains the only advanced economy that does not guarantee vacation time to its workforce. Most U.S. employers offer about 10 days of paid vacation days per year, but 25% of Americans don’t use this vacation time. In fact, only two-thirds of employees across different countries use all of their vacation days. And this doesn’t include the freelancers and business owners who tend to work around-the-clock. Clearly, we are finding it difficult to take time off work. But when we do, emerging research in the field of occupational psychology is here to help us make the most of it. Here are a few ways to maximize your happiness during vacation and reap the benefits long after you’re back to reality.
Booking last-minute travel may give you some discounted fares, but it can also add unexpected worries to the stress of travel. Worse yet, it robs us of the pleasure we feel when we look forward to a potentially rewarding experience. This is anticipation – the brain’s special high. Research suggests that anticipation correlates with more intense and satisfying emotions than remembering the past. Spending time crafting your entry should also maximize happiness, as the beginning of a holiday weighs heavily on the overall experience of the trip.
Avoid binging on a single, albeit longer, vacation per year. Frequent and shorter breaks recharge the mind and body more effectively than a single long break. (Much like meditating little and often is more beneficial than the occasional deep dive.) In fact, the high that comes with the anticipation and arrival tapers off after about a week, so regular long weekends and short vacations may help rebalance and revitalize us more than a long vacation. The mini-break or even micro-break may also help. Try to “turn off” in the evenings and weekends. Even taking walks between meetings could help. A good vacation recharges working people for up to 2 weeks after returning to work, so if you really want to hack your happiness quotient, you may want to engage in mini breaks every two weeks to keep the positive vibes going strong year-round.
Research shows that physical activities during vacation improves health and wellness levels, compared with passive activities (lying around poolside) or even social activities. Getting in a nature hike or water/snow sport could also maximize our holiday happiness, given how exercise improves mental function. Doing a sport we enjoy inherently boosts our feelings of pleasure, which also plays a major role in reaping the health and happiness benefits from vacation.
Research shows that our satisfaction diminishes with the things we buy, but increases with the experiences we are given . Novelty also plays a role here, as vacationing in the same place builds memories that may blur year-on-year. And experiences lead to unique stories. Inevitably, someone will one-up us on the purchases – a bigger boat, a more exotic location or a fancier watch. But it’s hard to one-up personal experiences. These are ours to cherish and share. Sharing these stories can also cement them in our memory bank, helping us re-live them longer. Even staycations can be novel, as long as we allow ourselves to experience the familiar in an unfamiliar way. Personally, this is my favorite happiness hack, as I strive to go somewhere new every year, and return with a camera full of memories but a bag that’s pretty much in pre-trip condition (apologies to the souvenir industry!).
The most important way to maximize happiness during vacation is to let it happen. Planning is one thing, but building up our expectations to levels seen only on the rare Instagram account may hinder our ability to stay present during our break. If anticipation is the brain’s highest high, then disappointment is its lowest low. Set realistic expectations and look around, not down at your phone. Think of the smells, tastes and sounds that only your brain can fully capture. If you find it hard to unplug fully, experts suggest setting aside designated times for checking in with work or social media. A destination with no wifi or cell signal is pretty much the only way I can fully unplug and reconnect with nature – and it works wonders.
While writing how to ‘optimize’ your happiness from vacation seems fundamentally un-vacation-like, it does address the rise in stress and burnout we are experiencing on a global scale. As a working American, I’m keenly aware of the challenge in obtaining time off, which isn’t even an option for many. Perhaps these little insights will enhance the joy and ‘after-glow’ we get from the precious little time we take for ourselves. And in the end, we are benefiting our health and wellness in ways we are only beginning to understand. Science shows that decompressing from work boosts our health and happiness, but it doesn’t have to be on a tropical island or even outside of the home. By integrating your personal holiday ingredients into everyday life, you allow your mind and body to recharge, ensuring that your personal sanctuary keeps your work-life balance in check.