Unhappy camper: The myths of vacations

As I worked through my final semester at grad school this spring, my June vacation to Turkey motivated me to get my work done. Just thinking about what I would see and do on vacation made me incredibly happy—and planning it was just part of the fun. According to recent studies, this feeling of pre-trip happiness is the norm. Travelers better enjoy it while they can, though, because despite the assumption that vacations rejuvenate us, the euphoria may not last long.

A study of 1,530 adults conducted by Dutch scientists and published earlier this year found that although most people enjoyed their vacations, they were actually happiest when they were planning their trips. This anticipation can amount to up to eight weeks of increased happiness prior to a trip.

Bodrum, Turkey; Credit: Ann L. WhitmanPreparing for and actually viewing this sight were enjoyable. The return to everyday life? Not so much.

As for the extended benefits of vacation, the study found that most people return to their usual levels of stress almost immediately upon returning home. Those who experienced a “very relaxed” vacation felt the benefits the longest—for up to two weeks. This “post-vacation let-down,” as dubbed by science writer Sharon Begley, is corroborated by several previous studies, noted in this week’s Newsweek. It is also suggested by a second, smaller Dutch study published in the August issue of Work & Stress.

Despite these findings, some believe that vacations can have lasting health benefits. A research team led by Dr. Sebastian Filep at Victoria University in Australia interviewed travelers and reviewed their journal entries to measure their levels of happiness. They found that experiences before, during, and after vacation were linked to three main elements of happiness: positive emotion, meaning, and engagement. Based on evidence that has linked happiness and longevity, Dr. Filep believes that vacations could contribute to longer lives. He also suggests that they could be prescribed as a future component of treatment plans for depression.

Now that’s one prescription I wouldn’t mind receiving from a doctor.

–Ann L. Whitman

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