The best vacation ever

How should you spend your time off? Believe it or not, science has some answers.

(Christoph Hitz for The Boston Globe)
By Drake Bennett
June 20, 2010

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Monday summer officially begins, and freed from the hunker-inducing cold, New Englanders’ imaginations have already turned to vacation: to idle afternoons and road trips, to the beach and the Berkshires. School is out, and the warm weekends stretch before us, waiting to be filled.

Of course, this creates its own pressures. 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, it turns out, 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 in the aggregate, 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 — with either little or very light sedation 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 to 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.

“I really emphasize this in the happiness lecture that I give in my social psychology course,” says Thomas Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell University specializing in decision-making. “My lectures are not really didactic in this ‘go live your life this way’ way, but my happiness lecture is. If you have to sacrifice how long your vacation is versus how intense it is, you want shorter and more intense.”

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 so searing that they 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’s Kellogg School of Management, and Terence Mitchell, of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, in 1997 reported the results of a study in which they asked people on three different vacations — a trip to Europe, Thanksgiving break, and a three-week bicycle tour of California — 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 level through a simple three-question questionnaire, the researchers found that going on vacation gave a notable boost to pre-vacation mood but had hardly any 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 acts of charity 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’s Haas School of Business, working with Tom Meyvis of the New York University Stern School of Business, 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. The same principle, he argues, would apply to a vacation. “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’s Wharton School, 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, Ayelet Gneezy and Suzanne Shu, marketing experts at the University of California, San Diego and University of California, Los Angeles business schools respectively, 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 reinforced a creeping suspicion that many Boston residents probably share — that people who live in cities with major attractions and 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.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail