Vacations may be fun in the moment, but they don't have much lingering stress-reducing, or happiness-raising benefits, according to a study from the Netherlands, published the Journal Applied Research in Quality of Life.
According to the study, after the vacation, happiness quickly drops back to baseline levels for most people. Vacationers were no happier than those who hadn't taken off (as an aside, the greatest boost in happiness came from anticipating and planning the vacation). Post-vacation happiness was affected by how much stress or relaxation a traveler experienced on their vacation. If vacationers described their trip as neutral or stressful, there was no post-trip happiness benefit.
Vacations can reduce stress while you're away, and may improve your life over the long term if you allow yourself to relax. "Many people have epiphanies when they travel because they can view their life back home from a detached, outsider's view and give you a clearer sense of who you are and how you really want to live your life," says Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, their Partners and Children and the Clinicians Who Treat Them.
So how do you take a vacation, de-stress, and have the effects linger more than a day or two?
- Make sure it's relaxing: The only vacationers in the Netherlands study who saw a boost in happiness were those who reported feeling "very relaxed" on their vacation. If you're travelling with young kids (though it may be better not to), consider enrolling them in half-day camps or arranging for a babysitter in the evenings so you have time to relax.
- Create a vacation that fits your personal style. Think about what you love to do, not what you should do. Some people love thrill-seeking vacations, others love exploring and some love just lounging on the beach. If the vacation doesn't fit, it may increase, not lower stress.
- Balance activities. "Alternate your time between staying active and resting," says Robinson. Activity raises feel-good endorphins, while quieting your mind reduces levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
- Take several mini vacations. Since the study showed that people get a mood boost out of planning and anticipating vacations, having several trips throughout the year may raise your overall happiness quotient higher than if you just have one vacation and then there's nothing to look forward to until next year.
- Take vacations during major holidays, such as the Fourth of July or in August, when many people are away and the workload is usually lighter, so you're less worried about work piling up while you're away.
- Delegate work before you leave. Since completely disconnecting from the office might be more stressful for some people, allow yourself to check voice mail and email under strict time limits, say one hour a day.
- Buffer your vacation. "Don't work right up until the moment you leave and head back to work right off the bat," says Robinson. "If possible, schedule an extra day off before you depart and another when you come back to dive back in slowly," he says.