The last word: The (scientifically) perfect vacation

How behavioral psychologists and economists can help you make the most of your precious time off

SUMMER HAS BEGUN, and our imaginations have turned to vacation: to idle afternoons and road trips, to the beach and the mountains. But where to go? When? What to do? Is it better to try somewhere new and exotic, or return to a well-loved spot? Doze on the beach or hike the ancient ruins? Hoard vacation days for a grand tour, or spread them around? Time off is a scarce resource, and as with any scarce resource, we want to spend it wisely.

Partly, these decisions are matters of taste. But there are also answers to be found in behavioral science, which increasingly is yielding insights that can help us make the most of our leisure time. Psychologists and economists have looked in some detail at vacations­—what we want from them and what we actually get out of them. They have advice about what really matters, and it’s not necessarily what we would expect.

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and 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.

“How do we optimize our vacation?” asks Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and the author of the new book The Upside of Irrationality. “There are three elements to it—anticipating, experiencing, and remembering. They’re not the same, and there are different ways to change each.”

There is, of course, plenty that we still don’t know. People take vacations for all sorts of reasons beyond pure hedonism—to learn about new places, to test themselves, to placate their children, to bask in the envy of their friends and co-workers. Research cannot settle questions like whether the pleasure we derive from anticipating a minutely planned trip will be outweighed by the disappointment when things don’t measure up.

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.

THERE ARE UNTOLD shelves of books dedicated to the art of maximizing our time at work, but no corresponding literature on maximizing our leisure time. Even asking the question of how to “optimize” a vacation seems fundamentally un-vacation-like. And yet people constantly puzzle over how to get the most out of their valuable time off: poring over guidebooks, checking the forecast, looking up online reviews of hotels and restaurants, arguing with spouses over where to go and what to do, and when.

The problem, say some social scientists, is that people do all this—and spend thousands of dollars—with an incomplete understanding of what qualities make an experience enjoyable. Take duration. A longer vacation seems, by definition, better than a shorter one, and having lots of paid vacation time is a highly valued job perk. But when we recall an experience, and how it made us feel, it turns out that length isn’t terribly important.

The strongest evidence here comes from social psychology experiments that looked at people being subjected to various pleasant and unpleasant stimuli. The most frequently cited study is one done by the physician Donald Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist whose work helped launch the field of behavioral economics. Patients undergoing colonoscopies—a quite painful procedure when sedatives aren’t used—were subjected to a few extra minutes of lesser pain at the end of the procedure. Overall, those patients rated the experience as less painful and less unpleasant than others, even though they had been in pain longer. Kahneman has found similar results for stimuli like watching film clips of playful puppies and soothing landscapes—a pleasant experience isn’t recalled later as more pleasurable just because it lasts longer.

Looking back, what matters far more is the intensity of sensation, whether it’s excitement or pain or contentment. And it’s not the overall average of the experience that people remember, but how they felt at the most intense moments, combined with how they felt right as the experience ended. Psychologists call this the “peak-end rule.”

The research on the peak-end rule has focused on shorter-term sensations—colonoscopies, thankfully, are brief compared with vacations—but psychologists suspect that it also applies to longer experiences. If so, that means worrying about whether it’s possible to get extra days off to stretch a trip is wasted energy. And if you’re deciding between a longer trip and a more eventful one—if, for example, the money it would cost for a few more nights in a hotel would mean you wouldn’t be able to afford a coveted splurge dinner or surfing lessons or concert tickets or a rain forest guide—then it makes more sense to just shorten the trip in the interest of making it more intense while you’re there.

The peak-end rule also suggests that there’s little point worrying about how much fun or how relaxing every last moment of a vacation is, since the trip will be remembered for its high points. Of course, our peak-end proclivities also mean that a trip could be remembered for its low points, experiences of vacation trauma that overwhelm all else—gastrointestinal disasters, perhaps, or a stolen passport or camera, or epic, frustration-induced tantrums.

But research looking at how people actually feel about their vacations suggests that, by and large, they remember them warmly—more warmly, in fact, than they feel while taking them. The psychologists Leigh Thompson, of Northwestern University, and Terence Mitchell, of the University of Washington, reported in 1997 the results of a study in which they asked people on three different types of vacations to fill out a series of emotional inventories before the vacation, during it, and then after. They found that in all three cases, the respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

A recent Dutch study had a more striking finding. Looking not at vacation memories, but measuring general happiness levels through a simple three-question questionnaire, the researchers found that going on vacation gave a notable boost to pre-vacation mood but had little effect on post-vacation feelings. Anticipation, it seems, can be a more powerful force than memory.

VACATIONS CAN’T ALL be short and intense, and we wouldn’t want them to be. What if we want to just improve a week at the beach house?

One consistent research finding is that people have a stubborn unconscious ability to adapt to their circumstances, whether those circumstances are good, like marrying their true love, or bad, like getting divorced. Whether they want to or not, people quickly begin to take things for granted.

One way to head that off, psychologists have found, is by constantly varying how we do things. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, has done a series of studies showing that in all sorts of everyday activities, from hobbies to studying to walking routes, people derive more pleasure from them the more they vary how they do them. When planning for how to keep ourselves (and our families) happy and engaged through a week off, it may help to keep the value of novelty and variation in mind.

The most effective way to inoculate a vacationer against the deadening power of adaptation, however, may be the most counter­intuitive—to break it up, to interrupt it with real life. The psychologist Leif Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley, working with Tom Meyvis of New York University, has found that people, whether having a pleasant experience like a massage or an unpleasant one like prolonged separation from a loved one, felt the pain or pleasure more intensely if the experience was stopped and then restarted.

“If you put a disruption in a hedonic experience, it intensifies it,” Nelson says. “You can imagine spending a weekend at some wonderful beach house. While it’s great for the first couple of hours, by the second day, it’s pleasant and then no longer exciting. If for some reason you’re forced to leave the beach house, when you return, you have all that new pleasure again.”

Other psychologists have a slightly different explanation for the hedonic boost that interruption gives. They see it less as a matter of adaptation and more a matter of evaluation. Having a trip interrupted in effect turns what had been a more open-ended experience into a bounded one, triggering the peak-end rule. That means, says Gal Zauberman of the University of Pennsylvania, that if we break up our trips strategically, we might actually get more enjoyment out of them. “If you partition after each peak experience, then you remember that piece as better than if you partition after each lousy thing,” he suggests.

But for those who can’t get away at all this summer, either because time or money prevents it, there is a finding for you, as well. Odd as it seems, people are often reluctant to take advantage of opportunities for pleasure that they do have, unless they’re in some way compelled. In a study published earlier this year, marketing experts Ayelet Gneezy and Suzanne Shu found that giving someone longer to redeem a gift certificate actually makes them less likely to do so. And using sidewalk surveys in London, Chicago, and Dallas, they found that people who live in cities with major landmarks are actually less likely to visit those landmarks than tourists are, and likely to only do so when hosting out-of-town guests.

The finding is a testament to the human tendency to procrastinate, in pleasure as in work. Seen this way, part of why we enjoy ourselves on a vacation stems from the fact that it gives us a deadline: an often sharply limited time window during which we have to go out and enjoy ourselves.

If you realize this, suggests Shu, you can give yourself some of the benefits of a vacation without going anywhere, simply by cordoning off a day or two and strictly scheduling it for leisure. That way you’ll actually go out and see the play or concert you would otherwise have skipped, or take the time to dig the tent and camp stove out of the basement.

“Give yourself a milestone or a deadline by which you’re going to go do this enjoyable thing,” Shu says, “and you’ll actually enjoy yourself more often.”

By Drake Bennett. Originally published in The Boston Globe. ©2010 by The New York Times Co.


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