Written by : Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan 

Why Most Vacations Don’t Make You Happy and How to Fix That

Vacations are supposed to be good for the soul. But often the typical formula for “getting away from it all” doesn’t work. Most people were actually not happier after a vacation, researchers note in an Applied Research in Quality of Life journal article. The average vacation was not worth the trouble. But we got interested in whether it was the vacation or actions before and after that predicted the value of time away.

We conducted our own research on the vacation ingredients that scientifically increase well-being. From that study we published in Harvard Business Review, we found that with the following four actions, you have a 97 percent chance of ensuring your vacations leave you with greater energy and happiness.


Get excited about wild turkeys. You don’t have to have a lot of money or time to get the most out of a planned vacation or staycation. Our brains have trouble telling the difference between visualization and actual experience. Thus, if you want to get the benefits from a vacation even months early, starting dreaming about specifics now. The key is in the specificity. For example, we can’t wait to see wild turkeys each summer. We think about it for months leading up to our yearly vacation. It’s become a yearly tradition to relax on the back porch of our small rental home in Martha’s Vineyard on the night we arrive to wait for a roving band of wild turkeys to come through our yard. We usually spot the mom or dad turkey first, and then five to eight babies emerge from the underbrush. It’s a signal that summer— and our vacation—is in full swing.

Whether you’re returning to an old stomping ground, going somewhere new or staying close to home, find a handful of things to get excited about ahead of time and visualize them: going with your mom for a walk around a lake near your childhood home, sipping grappa in Italy, binge-watching all of The Good Wife, or renting a convertible car for your drive down the coast. This “anticipatory savoring” can significantly increase happiness. If you’re taking your kids, spend time helping them to visualize the trip as well.

Find happiness in the details. In our study, 74 percent of respondents consider the most stressful aspect of travel to be figuring out the details: travel uncertainty, transportation and being unfamiliar with the location. To overcome these obstacles, come up with a game plan, including hotels, flights and potential activities more than one month in advance. (If you need help, ask friends who have been to your destination, travel agents or local tour companies.). One month appears to be the key time to ensure higher levels of happiness from the trip; 90 percent of our happiest respondents had planned the details at least 30 days before leaving on their vacations.


Extend your vacation. Happiness is a choice. So is a vacation. Our research-based advice is to take all the time off you’ve been given. According to an Expedia survey, each year Americans leave more than half a billion vacation days on the table. That’s four days of vacation per person! If you’re one of them, this is when we give you a serious talking-to (’cause we love you of course!). Take your vacation days. Every. Last. One. If you’re citing the all-to-common excuse, “I have too much to do and can’t leave,” let’s remember what happened the last time you cleared your to-do list. It filled back up again in no time! There is an infinite amount of work and chores, but we have a finite number of days to enjoy a vacation.

Additionally, taking a vacation is good for your career! According to our work with Project: Time Off, people taking all their vacation time have a 6.5 percent higher chance of getting a raise or a promotion than their colleagues who leave 11 or more days of paid time off on the table. That study reminds us that staying at work does not mean getting ahead.


Celebrate and savor. As you remember your vacation, you can extend and renew the positive emotions from the trip by savoring your good memories. One of our favorite parts of our vacation often happens days or weeks after it is over. We organize our photos and gather our extended family around our living room to show them the highlights. For our vacation to Paris with little Leo last year, the slideshow ran a bit long because the trip was that good, but thankfully our family indulged us. (We fed them chocolate éclairs and wine to ease their pain!) Savoring, especially in a group setting with social support, is a way to maximize the benefits of positive experiences. Your brain gets a chance to relive them. Additionally, get-togethers like these promote social connection, which is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness. So round up a few friends, get together your best pictures and mementos and enjoy a night of wine, wild turkeys, grappa and scenic shots you took from the convertible!

If you don’t have any vacations planned, take some time to remember a great trip from the past. Practice and acknowledge gratitude for your plans each day, starting a month before your time off. If you don’t pack your gratitude and positive mindset, no destination will make you happy. But if you look for the positives, you’ll find them everywhere you travel.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of Live Happy magazine.
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