Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, consults on organizational behavior topics including motivation, goal-setting, information sharing, and well-being. She also works on research at Columbia and Fordham Universities, studying how people find and develop callings, experience stress in negotiation, and regulate their attention and emotions. Full bio.
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 TripsJust 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 OftenIn 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) RelaxIn 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 ExpectationsJust 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.
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.