Vacations, Travel and Happiness


I read an advertisement in a newspaper yesterday (yes, I still read the Sunday edition of my local newspaper during breakfast) which proclaimed something to the effect
that a scientific study by the University of Colorado had proven that from the moment you started planning your holidays you became happier.

I found the statement quite reasonable, after all, I enjoy anticipating my trips, and I still remember my grandfather saying that the best part of life was savoring a future event, in anticipation.

Vacations make you happy

But was it true and a scientifically proven fact? I decided to find out, and below is what I dug up during my research:

Fact: Vacations Are Good for you

Travel helps strengthen your relationship with your partner, as pointed out by Angela M. Durko and James F. Petrick in a review:

Several studies have revealed couples traveling together were more connected and intimate with their partner, improved their relationship when they returned home,and improved their communication skills during a vacation.

During your vacations, it is better to travel than to stay at home, as Jessica de Bloom pointed out in this paper published in 2016:

 holiday travel is more beneficial than spending free time at home [Because]…travel may provide feelings of remoteness in places with novel and fascinating qualities, free of chores.

In other words, holidays make you feel that you are free!

A 26-year follow up study by T.E. Strandberg on a group of 2,741 executives and businessmen from Finland showed that those who took shorter vacations were more obese (higher BMI), drank more coffee and had worse self-rated health. Strandberg discovered that  shorter annual vacations were associated with higher mortality and worse general health.

So, that is a very good reason to take time off from work and enjoy a longer vacation away from home. But what about happiness?

Happiness and Travel

A study by Dutch scholar Jeroen Nawijn ratifies de Bloom’s findings, that vacationers are happier, compared to non-vacationers, but that in general there were no differences between vacationers’ and non-vacationers’ post-trip happiness unless the vacationers had taken a “very relaxed holiday“.

Those who belonged to this “relaxed” group also had a high pre-trip happiness and, after their vacations, their happiness level decreased more gradually than that of other vacationers: taking eight weeks to reach the pre-trip level and significant higher post-trip happiness levels in the first two weeks of return.

Vacations make you happier than those who don’t travel

This means that happiness is closely related to being unstressed and relaxed. Another study supports this notion as we will see below:

The Road to Happiness Study

2013 study by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan sponsored by the Institute of Applied Positive Research and Monograms -a travel agent, surveyed 414 travelers covering 34 different items with the objective of understanding the link between travel, vacations and happiness.

They found a strong statistical correlation between unhappiness and stressful trips and that travelers had less energy at work after stress on a bad trip.

They also found the positive effects of good stress-free vacations: 94% of travelers reported having more energy and 55% of them had even more energy than they had before taking their vacations.

So repairing trips that top up your energy levels are the result of happiness, which in turn depends on the stress level experienced prior to and during your vacation.

So the idea is to have enjoyable and stress-free travel. But how can you do this? Apparently you have to plan your vacations, manage them well and take these four factors into account for a happy holiday:

1. Minimize stress.

Stress plays a primary role in travel happiness. Stress ranges from only 4% of travelers feeling stress during their “Best Trips” to a staggering 60% of stressed people during their “Worst Trips“. The main stress factors are:

  • 28% Wasting time.  Ironing out the details of your trip at the last minute. Trying to figure things out and managing trip details. Poor planning schedules.
  • 25% Being unfamiliar with the destination. Insecurity. Going to a new city can be stressful : i.e. Where is my hotel? What is the neighborhood like?
  • 20% Managing transportation. Travel uncertainty: How do I get from the airport to my hotel? Where is the car rental located?

These three factors accounted for stress in 74% of travelers.

But they can be resolved easily: embrace your vacations, plan them ahead, focus on the details, learn about your destination, become familiar with it (Google photos of it, pour over maps, read travel tips in forums) or… get a good travel agent to take care and plan it all for you.

I opt for taking a hands-on attitude and I enjoy organizing my travel, which by the way brings us to the other three factors for a happy vacation:

2. Plan ahead.

90% of the people reported that their best vacations were those that they had planned for more than one month in advance. So take time to plan ahead, the earlier you plan it, the better. Planning ahead has many advantages:

  • Anticipation.
    A study (and this is the one mentioned in my newspaper) by Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Laurence Ashworth,  (Looking Forward, Looking Back: Anticipation Is More Evocative Than Retrospection), reports that five separate experiments show that people experience more intense emotions anticipating positive emotional events than when they look back at them. This is because people expect future emotions to be more intense than their remembered past emotions were. (Ah, we are always so optimistic, aren’t we?).
    Dr. Van Boven attributes this to the fact that pre-living experiences is very emotionally arousing while once it has been lived and is in the past, our viewpoint is more distant.
    So as you plan your vacations, chose your hotel and book your flights, anticipate your future happiness: evoke in your mind pictures of white sandy beaches, palm trees and the fresh salty breeze of the ocean.
  • Better prices and relaxed planning.
    You can choose better lodging options, book those hard to get tickets in the theater or that cabin you long for in a National Park and secure better bargains by giving yourself time to search for them.
    You can go over your plan, adjust it, improve it, enjoying the process.

3. Local Connection

For 78% of travelers, their happiest trips were those during which they had met a local at their destination (a friend or a good travel guide) that helped them connect with their destination. Local knowledge, tips and advice helps experience the destination with an open mind, which lowers stress and boosts happiness.

So, ask your hotel’s concierge for his advice, visit the local tourist information center, talk with the locals and other travelers, they can give you unexpected suggestions that can lead to pleasant surprises.

For instance, on a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro we visited a sight that we didn’t even know existed when our paths crossed with a fellow citizen -who had heard us speaking and felt confident enough to ask us for the directions to the Cathedral, which we gave her. She then remarked that she had not been able to find the “Escadaria Selarón” (Selarón Steps) which she’d heard were remarkable. So we Googled it! and it was very close to us. Such a nice surprise, which we would have missed.

4. Travel Far Far Away

85% of travelers reported that their best trips were those taken abroad, outside their country. 94% said that traveling instead of staying at home during their vacations made them happier (so it isn’t only relaxing and not having to go to work: travel itself increases happiness).

And, according to a Twitter study, the further you go away from home, the happier you are: This study by Morgan R. Frank, Lewis Mitchell, Peter S. Dodds and Christopher M. Danforth published in 2013 (read the paper) found that the happiness of individuals rises steadily (in a logarithmic way) increasing with distances of up to many thousands of miles away from their home.

What is more, those that roam the most tweet happy words more often than the sedentary Twitter users.

Fitz Roy, Patagonia, Argentina. Source:

Positive outcome for Stress-Free travel

93% of those who followed the 4 steps mentioned above had more energy when they returned (Achor calls it “Post-Vacation Glow”) while 71% of those who experienced a “Bad” (stressful) trip returned home with less energy.

How long does this happiness last?

According to  a study by Jessica de Bloom in the Journal of Happiness Studies, health and well-being during vacations peaked on the eighth vacation day.

She also found that long summer vacations (the average in this study was 23 days) improved health and wellness during the vacations. This was due to better sleep, relaxing, savoring and passive activities, but alas, it was a short-lived positive effect: it returned to its previous baseline level during the first week of getting back to work.

Dutch scientist Jeroen Nawijn  (see his paper) found that  happiness improves during our holiday: mood improved from its lowest during the first “travel phase” of a holiday (roughly the first 10% of its duration) and became highest during the “core phase” which spanned around 70% of the holiday time. It then dropped slightly but increased again during the final phase of the holiday.

So it seems that long vacations with a relaxed frame of mind provide lasting happiness and a joyful pre-vacation “anticipatory” period.

Tips to Reduce Stress

Plan, learn, enjoy and unwind:

  • Chose good hotels: they don’t have to be 5-star hotels or expensive ones, they have to be “good” for you. The idea is that they have a convenient pricing and good ratings by their guests. A good location in your destination and perks that you find attractive will help eliminate the “bad hotel stress”. View the photographs of the hotel, locate it in Google maps, read the reviews check its services (free wi-fi, breakfast,
    spa, pets allowed…) does it cover your needs at a satisfactory price?
  • Transportation issues. Learn how to get from the airport to your hotel, or how to move around your destination. Again, compare prices and availability (taxi, bus, underground or maybe the hotel has a shuttle service), timetables. Map of the bus network. Call the hotel for suggestions on getting there from the airport.
  • Relax. Take a day or two of relaxing or calm activities. It will help you unwind.
  • Avoid Wasting Time. Define the must-see sights and the main landmarks and attractions. Check their location on a map, find out their entrance costs, open hours and how to reach them. Cut worries to a minimum.
  • Detach. Unplug from the office. Turn off your phone, don’t read work emails (or keep it to a minimum). They will survive without you. Flow with the current and enjoy the day.
  • Do something memorable at the end of your trip. End it on a positive note that you will remember for years to come.
  • Time to readjust when you return. Don’t come back home Sunday night and rush to work on Monday. Try coming back on Saturday, it will give you time to adapt to the fact that your vacations are over and to regroup mentally to head back to your job.
    I always come back on Saturday. It lets us unpack, stock up our refrigerator, get the laundry done, water the plants and relax from the flights before going back to work on Monday.
  • Post-vacation. Avoid the Blues. Don’t fall into the rut right away. Take time to relax, avoid working long hours.
    Extend the “glow”. Reminisce about your trip and re-experience it again today.
    Stick that postcard on your cubicle wall or wear those clothes that you bought while on vacations. Look at the photographs you took. it will bring back pleasant memories.
    Conclusion: Travel, enjoy, relax and feel happy!

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