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The Truth About Happiness and Travel

by Christine DeSadeleer Mar 1, 2010
The act of travel doesn’t make us as happy as the plan of travel. Here’s why.

Breaking out of the regular routine, sipping cocktails on a beach, hiking mountains in far-off lands – most of us tend to equate vacation getaways with happiness.

But according to a recent study in the Applied Research in Quality of Life, it’s the vacation planning that makes us happiest, and not the actual vacation itself.

The happiness boost not only occurs when clicking away on different travel sites or thumbing through Lonely Planets, and plotting your adventure. These researchers from the Netherlands (aren’t people generally happier there anyway?) found that the act of mapping out that time off increased happiness for up to eight weeks – two whole months – ahead of the trip. That’s certainly a lot longer than most vacations I know about.

Guess it makes sense in a way. In reality, vacation or travel tends to be more stressful than we anticipate, what with the little annoyances like lost luggage and improperly booked hotel rooms. Or the bigger ones like dropping your camera off a mountain cliff in Tasmania (check) and forking over $1000 for a last-minute flight to London from Zambia when you thought you were going to Niger for about $100 (check check).

Then as soon as the vacation is over, most of us have to get back to work, which immediately negates any possible happiness we did derive on that Carnival cruise…I mean, eco-friendly work-trip in Honduras.

Relaxing Or Barf-Worthy?

After reading this article in the New York Times, pointed out to us by Milos Trylon, I thought back to some of the trips I’ve taken in my life that were supposed to be “relaxing” – i.e. sitting on a beach, sipping daiquiris, checking out oiled-up men.

Ok, I’ve never really been on a trip like that, but I did participate in the requisite Spring Breaks in the Bahamas and Cancun in college, attended a wedding in Hawaii, even – sigh – jumped on one of those cruises.

That’s not relaxation, that’s food/alcohol-coma-nightmare.

I must admit, I’ve never had the kind of fun on these trips that it seemed I was supposed to have. For these types of vacations, which are ones I think the general public tends to fantasize about, it becomes a competition to drink and eat the most for your money. “Oh, alcohol’s included? Just go ahead and bring me four pina coladas now!” “All day buffet on deck 4? Sweet, it’s been over 45 minutes since we last ate, let’s go grab a nibble!” Ugh, that’s not relaxation, that’s food/alcohol-coma-nightmare.

Even if the vacation is less inclined toward booze and more inclined toward say, nature, hiking, and sightseeing, we often pack as much as possible into 7-days round trip. This leaves us so exhausted that first Monday back at work, we end up complaining about needing a vacation after our vacation.

The Power of Suggestion

Beyond whether or not vacations end up actually being as fun as we think they will be, it’s interesting to think about the mindset of travel and time-off.

We crave time away so much when feeling over-stressed at work, and researching different packages and options gives our bottomed-out adrenaline a little jolt.

Yet, since it turns out the actual vacation isn’t giving us the happiness we think it will, maybe giving our brains some time off could have the same affect?

Reality is what we see, think, and believe. Our thoughts are what bring us happiness, and the anticipation of something good gets those endorphins going. Can we use this knowledge in order to build in more daily escapes to look forward to, even if that’s just walking through a different neighborhood in our town, or taking ten minutes for the ultimate mind-trip meditation?

This is not to say that I think travel, taking time off, and even island-hopping college vacations aren’t valid. The point of travel is not only to achieve a high return on happiness – it’s also to learn about ourselves, other cultures, and even to be challenged to grow via those pesky annoyances.

This is not to say that I think travel, taking time off, and even island-hopping college vacations aren’t valid.

And I think there is a distinction between the mindset of those who travel for longer periods of time vs. those who are taking a short vacation, due to the fact that long-term travelers usually know they’re in for some rough patches. That’s almost a part of the purpose.

Still, when we can’t get away, whether that comes from a lack of funds, time, or dealing with life issues, it’s good to be reminded that mindset is the name of the game. We have the power to get away in the here and now.

Which just prompted me to head out the door to a personally-uncharted little town nearby to get the rest of my work done today.

Do you derive more happiness from vacation-planning or the trip itself? Share your thoughts below.

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