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How to Improve Vacations? 5 New Research Findings

By on October 12, 2012 – 2:14 pm  11 Comments

Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.

Her articles are here and here (with Shannon Polly).



It’s fall in New York City. A mostly beautiful summer has blown past, and, with it, vacation season. This means that most of us are back to our pre-vacation stress levels. Research shows that positive effects of vacations fizzle out quickly, within a month, with one study finding that they were entirely absent after just one day back at work.

As we all look ahead to holiday visits, how can we make vacations more worthwhile?

1) Plan Trips

Just anticipating your upcoming trip may be the best aspect of vacationing. Researchers Jeroen Nawijn, Miquelle Marchand, Ruut Veenhoven, and Ad Vingerhoets found that pre-trip happiness was higher in vacationers than non-vacationers. Getting excited about leaving your stresses behind before you go on an adventure (or lay like a lizard on a hot rock somewhere) increases positive emotion, so it’s worth going on a trip, even a little one, to get this boost. One idea may be planning a few vacations in a row so that when you finish your first one, you’ve got another one to look forward to. I recently tried planning a trip while on a trip and found it to be a useful way of keeping away the dread of drowning in the never-ending work-ocean.

2) Take Vacations Often

In a recent study, Dutch researchers Jessica de Bloom, Sabine Geurts, and Michiel Kompier found that health and well-being (defined as a composite of health status, fatigue, satisfaction, mood, tension, and energy level) increased at the onset of the vacation and peaked on the eighth day. This is aligned with previous research showing that it takes time to wind down from a stressful period of work into a vacation.

This implies that taking a vacation of at least eight days may be the ticket to fully enjoying the potential benefits, but the authors suggest that more frequent, short vacations throughout the work year might maintain higher well-being overall. Previous studies indicate inconsistent associations between length of trip and post-trip happiness. The theory discussed by the researchers is that depletion of resources should be followed by recharging them.

3) Relax

In the same study referred to above, respondents who rated their vacations as “very relaxed” had longer-lasting boosts in happiness than did vacationers who rated their trips as just relaxed, neutral or stressful. The positive effects lasted for two weeks (not enormous, but still useful).

The paper didn’t give specifics as to what to do in order to become “very relaxed,” but they suggested that standing in long lines with impatient children might be a situation to avoid.

This research clarifies for me why going to visit family for the holidays may not be a vacation or some people. Personally, I have to zig zag across Florida to squeeze in a few hours with various relatives. Generally, I don’t take off enough time to do this comfortably, so it becomes a stressful event, with lots of concern about letting people down.

I think it might be easy to let “vacation” become a label for time that you are not at your usual work. However, if you’re looking to recharge, it may be worth setting that as a clear intention, and planning aspects of your vacation that you know will reduce stress as much as possible. (This is different for vacations that are vigorous in nature, like ski vacations – De Bloom and researchers found that engaging in pleasure-inducing physical activities increased health and well-being, but passive activities decreased health and well-being.)

4) Be Flexible in Your Expectations

Just as in usual life, having autonomy to choose (even if that choice is to make no choices) is associated with higher well-being on vacation. De Bloom found that negative incidents were incidents that restricted autonomy – becoming ill or injured, inclement weather, or a close one becoming ill. Another way of looking at this may be that unmet expectations decrease the enjoyable experience of a vacation. Thus, flexible expectations may be a solution to situations like inclement weather. (However, injury and illness are overtly negative.)

My husband and I recently went on a mountain getaway. (Really, it was intended as a vacation for our dogs, and as a place where we could focus on work). The power went out for almost a full day of our four-day retreat, dashing our plans of using electronic devices. For a while, I was stressed out that I would be falling behind my intended goal, but it ended up being kind of nice not to be able to check email or stare into a screen. Apparently, there are these sparkly lights that come out at night called ‘stars.’

5) Savor and Sleep

The degree to which vacationers can savor positive experiences is strongly associated with health and well-being during and after vacations, according to De Bloom’s research. Practicing noticing and appreciating is probably worth doing on a normal day, but making a concerted effort to reflect on and savor vacation experiences may heighten what is already a positive time.

Sleeping well and for longer periods was also associated with higher well-being according to Bloom’s research, but the study was unable to distinguish whether this was a due to better sleep itself, or whether better sleep was due to the vacation. Comfortable, dark sleeping environments and about eight hours of snoozing a night is what the researchers recommend.

Hopefully, these ideas will be helpful as we head into a holiday season, which for many, is filled with travel.

Images:
Sunset courtesy of kevin dooley
Three bikes on canal bridge in Amsterdam courtesy of joiseyshowaa
Winter cabin courtesy of Russell James Smith
Beach courtesy of Ian Carroll

References:

Jessica de Bloom, Sabine Geurts and Michiel Kompier (2010). Vacation from work as prototypical recovery opportunity, Gedrag & Organisatie, 23(4).

Jessica de Bloom, Sabine A. E. Geurts, Michiel A. J. Kompier (2012). Vacation (after-) effects on employee health and well-being, and the role of vacation activities, experiences and sleep, Journal of Happiness Studies.

Jessica de Bloom, Sabine A.E. Geurts, Toon W. Taris, Sabine Sonnentag, Carolina de Weerth, Michiel A.J. Kompier (2010). Effects of vacation from work on health and well-being: Lots of fun, quickly gone, Work & Stress, 24(2).

Jane Kuhnel & Sabine Sonnentag (2011). How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade-out of vacation effects, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 32(1), 125-143.

Jeroen Nawijn, Miquelle A. Marchand, Ruut Veenhoven & Ad J. Vingerhoets (2010). Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier after a Holiday, Applied Research Quality Life, 5, 35–47.

11 Comments »

  • Senia says:

    Genna,

    I think this article is absolutely wonderful. It’s so surprising to me that there’s this much recent literature on vacations. All your citations are from 2010 and 2011.

    Do you think your “take vacations often” advice is similar to the peak-end rule? You mention that health and well-being increase at the beginning and on the eighth day. That’s unusual that the eighth day would be like a magic day – do you think this has to do with the fact that for many people the eighth day is the last day, and that this is similar to the peak-end rule?

    Thanks!

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    That’s a great question, Senia. The finding about the peak on the 8th day comes from the Bloom at al, 2012 paper. They mention that the vacation durations in their study ranged from 15 to 34 days, with an average of 23 days, so I don’t think the peak on the 8th day is due to it being near the end of the trip. The authors offer the explanation that it simply takes time to fully unwind after stressful work periods. I do think it’s interesting to note that this was a European subject pool, and their vacations seem substantially longer than US vacations I’m accustomed to. The authors were hesitant to prescribe taking long vacations because previous research has found little relationship with duration and level of well-being. Thank you for the question!

  • Senia says:

    Wow! They are longer vacations. Thanks for the answer.

  • Oz says:

    Gen- I use to take a week or so to chill. No that I meditate I’m chilled from day 2 – haven’t found a way to overcome he jet lag yet.

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Oz, thank you for the comment about meditation. When you discover how to overcome jet lag, please let us know :)

  • Pat says:

    I find vacations are more pleasurable when I take pictures and write stories – and the effect lasts longer when I get home since I often just have time to make notes when on vacation and, then, re-live the good moments and write up stories about them later.

  • Genna, my compliments for your very well-written and highly interesting article. It was a pleasure to read it and I am very happy that my field of research gets attention by the media in this way. It is such an important issue for every worker…
    I also agree with your explanation about the “magic 8th day”. I believe that the peak we found will probably occur at another point in time if people would go on a shorter vacation. But more research on this is needed.
    However, we did not find a direct relationship between vacation length and changes in well-being. This suggests that a number of shorter vacations (instead of only one long vacation per year) might be better for your health.
    I am also happy with the suggestions on how to prolong the effects of a vacation. I also wrote a book (in Dutch; http://www.uitgeverijboom.nl/boeken/psychologie/de_kunst_van_het_vakantievieren_9789461055569/?viafonds=1) about practical tips for your vacation. The tips above would fit in my book very well. I was also greatly inspired by the book “Savoring” by Bryant & Veroff. Perhaps this could be interesting for you, too. Thanks for the great work.

  • Alan Moore says:

    Wonderful list. I have experienced that the planning of the vacation can be just as powerful as the vacation itself.

    I have seen some research that showed longer vacations do not produce additional well-being than short vacations. This would tie with your recommendation to take them often.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Jessica, thank you so much for your comment. Having actually never taken a vacation of more than 8 days, I’d be quite interested in more research on the topic of well-being peak in relation to length. It might be interesting to look at cultural differences in vacationing and how they might relate to well-being. I look forward to your future work!

  • A couple of tips to prevent/overcome jet lag:
    - Try to adjust your bedtimes and the time you get up gradually before you are leaving (so, try to go to bed earlier or later than normal, depending on the direction of your flight)
    - During the flight, immediately adjust your watch to the time at your destination and try to eat at the time people would eat at your destination (food intake is an important “Zeitgeber”)
    - Spend a lot of daytime outside at your destination(as sunlight is another important Zeitgeber)
    - Engage in moderate physical activities at your destination (e.g. go for a walk, cycling)
    - You can also consider taking some melatonin before going to sleep

  • amanda says:

    Thanks for such an inspiring article.

    I try to have a yearly holiday of about 4 weeks, because Australia is so far from everywhere.
    It is OK to fly up to Asia for a week’s break (only 8 – 10 hour trip) but with a 24 hour trip to Europe and the east coast of USA/Canada, it’s not worth going for less than 2 weeks.
    However, I find that the long-haul flight becomes an important part of the journey. It’s an excellent time to rewind, chill out, relax, meditate, medicate (to sleep), eat and be spoilt. I also tend to catch up with movies that I have missed, which I really enjoy. Reading is also great, while listening to music from the air-radio channels.
    I savour this “time-out” experience of getting to my destination, and am READY to embark on my “touring” the moment I leave the plane.
    Thanks for allowing my 2-cent worth.

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