Last year I took a trip to Taos, New Mexico—a place I’d heard so much about and had always wanted to see. But, after passing by one extraordinarily beautiful vista after another en route, and racing through all of the major tourist sites in just one day, I realized that the experience left me feeling flat.
Yeah, Taos is a marvel. But I’d missed something important: happiness.
How many of you spend a lot of time planning your wonderful summer vacation only to feel let down by it? Given how little vacation time many people have these days and how much money it can cost to travel, this is disconcerting, to say the least.
Here’s where the science of happiness can help out. After having my own travel letdowns, I decided it was time to put my knowledge of happiness research to work, to get the most out of my vacations. In my recent book, The Happy Traveler, I outline the science that shows why we sometimes miscalculate what kind of vacation we’ll enjoy most and end up missing out on what vacations have to offer in the moment.
Many of us plan our vacations months or even years in advance. That means we need to predict what kind of vacation we’ll want in the future. Unfortunately, we are often bad at forecasting happiness; so, we need to find other tactics for making decisions around travel. Here are some of the ones I use, based on research, to help me plan and enjoy my vacations better.
Get advice from those who’ve gone before you
Of course, travel guides can be tremendous resources when you are planning a trip. But a simple, counterintuitive way to forecast how much we’ll enjoy being in a particular place is to ask others about their experiences in the same place at the same time of year. Believe it or not, this is usually a better idea than simply trying to imagine yourself how you’ll feel in a situation you’re not familiar with. In other words, you’re leveraging the power of social connection—one of the biggest predictors of subjective well-being.
Mix up destinations and experiences so you don’t adapt
On a vacation, it’s good to linger and to relax—but not too much. Happiness researchers know that we humans will adapt to even the most amazing, unusual experiences—something called hedonic adaptation. So, for example, if a beautiful Hawaiian sunset is initially amazing, the tenth or eleventh fantastic sunset will not affect you nearly as much. You may even stop noticing it. That means it makes sense to move around and mix up our experiences, to help prevent hedonic adaptation. If we don’t, we may spend two of our three weeks on Maui pining for something different or even wishing we were back at home.
Minimize your choices
If you’re a maximizer like me, you may be worried about making the most of your experiences while also having strong fears of missing out, both of which can lead to unhappiness. That’s why it might help maximizers to limit their vacation choices so that making decisions becomes less fraught. Going to a small town with few options might be better than going to a big city with lots. You can also use the strategy of imagining a typical day on whatever trip you plan and writing down the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of that. By taking a more realistic view of what travel might look like—including long layovers, boring boat rides, and long waits in line to see the Mona Lisa—the choice of whether or not to reexamine your trip goals may become clearer.
Consider your own personality when making choices
To help us choose the right vacation for ourselves, we can also take a good look at our personalities. Are you more extraverted or introverted? Do you like novelty and adventure or comfort and stability? These factors can help you decide whether or not you might want a beach vacation in Cancun—where relaxation and socializing are primary—or a solo hike in the Alps—where adventure and isolation are key. However, we shouldn’t neglect the importance of challenge, meaning getting a little out of our comfort zone. Research has shown that travel can really be transformative, if we have the right level of challenge as part of the experience.
Don’t let cost concerns ruin your vacation
Spending money can be stressful, and there’s no getting around that traveling can be expensive. But a few simple rules will help you get the most pleasure for your buck. Since worrying about expenses is a real drag on happiness, it makes sense to consider buying prepaid vacation plans, where costs are up front and you don’t have to worry about nickel and diming your way through your vacation. Also, it’s a good idea to leave your most luxurious splurge to the end of your trip. Studies find that people tend to evaluate past vacations based on how they ended rather than their overall experience.
Plan for some uncertainty and doses of awe and flow
Many of us enjoy the anticipation of a trip almost as much as the trip itself. But, to keep things fresh, it’s good to leave some uncertainty in your plans. Though you may think a spa vacation is what you really need, it’s usually best to mix it up with some exploration of new things and a little bit of challenge. When we put ourselves in the presence of something vast and inspiring, we are bound to experience awe—an emotion that makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Also, there is almost no more pleasurable experience than flow—or losing track of time because we are so engaged in a task. Adding doses of these into our vacations will help to increase our happiness and make our trips more memorable.
Choose immersion and connection in your travel
Some of us may play with bucket lists—places we want to see before we die. But, simply checking off destinations as we pass through them is not a way to increase happiness through travel. It is often more satisfying to aim for immersive experiences—even short ones—like avoiding restaurants catering to tourists or luxury chain hotels. Research suggests that people often underestimate how much enjoyment they will get talking to strangers. In fact, when we make the effort to step away from the familiar to meet other people and experience their cultures, it can deepen our appreciation of the places we see. Though an introvert myself—and therefore less comfortable talking to strangers—I’ve found that the effort to meet others in a country pays off many times over.
Take time to savor your experience
Being mindfully present for any experience can heighten our sense of enjoyment when we are traveling. However, too many of us lose our connection to our experiences because we worry about what’s happening at home or spend too much time “sharing” our adventures with friends via social media. It’s a good idea to put your phone away for large parts of your trip and just be present. Research suggests that, even though many of us may post photos of our trips hoping to share our happiness with others, this can backfire and actually create more distance between us and our loved ones at home. Plus, it’s impossible to really enjoy fully what’s in front of us if we’re checking our “likes” on social media or worrying too much about getting the “perfect photo.”
Of course, there are many things to consider when vacationing besides the ones listed here—your budget, whether or not to travel with another person, how long to be away, how much time to leave at the end of your trip for reentry. But taking care of your happiness goals may be just as important as other logistics. And, given how much we invest in vacations, isn’t it worth taking the time to enjoy them?