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Savvying the Science of Vacations

June 22, 2010

I’m always a little leery when I read an article that attempts to dispense some sort of expert advice on the idiosyncrasies of human existence based on scientific study. I’m all for scientific study, but come on–who exactly are we studying here? Sleep-deprived, beer-and-pizza-fueled college students? Brooks Brothers-wearing yuppies? Sex and the City aficionados? Are the study participants anything like me? Can it teach me something about myself? I never really know for certain.  So when I came across an article that suggested there was some type of objective formula for maximizing happiness and enjoyment while on vacation, naturally I was curious: had someone finally determined a concrete way for me to guarantee the. best. time. EVER. for my next vacation? I was anxious to find out.

“The Best Vacation Ever” from this past weekend’s Boston Globe makes some observations about the whats and wherefores about the art and science of vacationing:

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before. And though it may feel unnecessary, it’s important to force yourself to actually take the time off in the first place — people, it turns out, are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable things like vacations as unpleasant ones like paperwork and visits to the dentist.

This particular bit was surprising:

For psychologists and behavioral economists, vacations are a window into the still only dimly understood mystery of human pleasure, a field known as hedonic psychology. Their research, along with other work on prototypically pleasant (and unpleasant) experiences, has begun to yield a portrait of your mind on vacation. And if the findings tell us anything, it’s that we might actually need some help. When we guess the best way to spend our free time, it seems that we often guess wrong.

Disturbing and discouraging, but I hardly believe this blanket statement applies to everyone.

The article continues that what we remember most about vacations, or about any experience pleasant or unpleasant, are the high points of the experience combined with how the experience ends. If the final memory of your trip to [insert major metropolitan city here] last summer was filling out an incident report in a local police station because your wallet got stolen, you’d better have experienced some pretty damned fine moments during the trip to make it a pleasant memory. By contrast, if your planned vacation was punctuated by mishap after mishap, but culminated in the pleasant fulfillment of some lifelong dream, chances are you’ll remember the conclusion the most. This suggests that the intensity of the sensation during the high points and the end points are actually what makes your vacation more memorable than the day-to-day moments. Possibly.

The article quotes Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University as saying that, “If you have to sacrifice how long your vacation is versus how intense it is, you want shorter and more intense.” Lots of high points win versus length. I get that.

Other assertions made in the piece:

  • Anticipation of the vacation and remembrance of it afterward elicit more pleasurable sensations than does the actual experience itself and
  • The best way to increase your enjoyment of your vacation is to interrupt it, essentially reintroducing the element of anticipation.

It would have been nice if the article had addressed how travel companions or lack thereof affect pleasure on vacation (give me something to work with–are solo travelers happier and more fulfilled than their coupled counterparts? I think so!), but all in all it’s an interesting read.

What am I taking away from it?

  1. If I ever get to Bali, I am doing it all in 48 hours on one giant arak-fueled bender. And then turning around the following day and flying the 20 hours back to New York. Intense? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Pleasurable? Possibly. Who needs 10 gloriously relaxing days in Bali? Not me. (I’m obviously in a cheeky sort of mood today).
  2. I shouldn’t even bother to actually go to San Francisco. I should just plan to go to San Francisco, since I’ll have more fun in the planning than in the doing. It’ll save me a heckuva lot of money (more on this next Monday) and that pesky six hour flight. Pshaw.
  3. I should check my work e-mail while on vacation and deal with whatever crises arise right then and there. The interrupt will do wonders for my perspective (I do this anyway. Who am I kidding? And the interruption very rarely puts me in a better frame of mind).
  4. As much as I love a good study that attempts to define the undefinables in life, sometimes it’s just better to take a risk, take your chances, go with the flow, and see what happens. It’s all part of this wonderful and terrible mystery we call life.
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