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Hit The Ground Running

The Scientifically Proven Way To Have The Best Vacation Ever

Happiness research shows how to make the most of your precious time off (in 9 simple steps).

[Photo: Cultura RM/Adam C Bartlett/Getty Images]

Vacations are pretty great already. But as psychological researchers discover more about how the human brain works, we’re gaining insights into exactly how to crank up the enjoyment factor—and why you should. Here are nine strategies for getting the most bliss out of your precious vacation days, and returning without needing a vacation from your vacation.

1. Planning May Be The Best Part

Anticipation accounts for a major chunk of human happiness. One study of vacationers found (no surprise) that they were happier than people who weren’t getting away, but almost all of the happiness boost happened before the vacation itself. When you think about the fun you’ll be having, you feel much of the same joy the experience itself will bring. The difference is that it can last a lot longer. So pick the dates for your vacations well in advance, and revel in thinking about what you’ll do.

2. Opt For Quantity Over "Once In A Lifetime"

A once-in-a-lifetime trip, like a month in New Zealand, would be amazing. But the "once-in-a-lifetime" aspect of such vacations limits their overall contribution to happiness. Research increasingly finds that we return to previous happiness levels fairly quickly (we spend life on the "hedonic treadmill"), and so smaller pleasures experienced frequently contribute more to overall well-being than major but less infrequent ones. Another study found that the health and wellness benefits of a vacation peaked at about eight days in. So look for already-shortened workweeks for getaways so you can plan several eight-day vacations (weekend plus workweek plus weekend) in a year for the price of three to four vacation days a pop.

3. Do New Things

In his TedX talk on the nature of time, former Olympic speed skater John Coyle notes that when we were 8 years old, summer seemed to last forever. Now, not so much. So how to make time slow down? For an 8-year-old all is new, and time goes slowly as the brain processes all these new adventures. Adults stick to routines. A vacation is a great opportunity to consciously plan in new experiences, be they kayaking, zip-lining through a rainforest, learning to make cheese, whatever.

4. Fill Your Days With Enjoyable Things

Researchers who asked people to report their moods through the day found that they were happiest when relaxing, socializing, exercising, doing spiritual activities, and eating (oh, and when engaged in "intimate relations" as well). So around your adventures, make time for great meals, some relaxed reading, quiet contemplation, and connecting with the people you are traveling with—particularly any you happen to be romantically involved with.

5. Outsource The Not-Fun Stuff

Satirical newspaper The Onion ran a well-shared story two years ago called "Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean." It’s funny because it’s true, and unfortunately, it’s a recipe for Mom (and Dad) to feel pretty mixed about vacations. Housekeeping and childcare are inevitable if you’ve got little ones, but make sure you build in some adults-oriented downtime as well. Bring Grandma along for built-in babysitting, or budget for a hotel babysitter for a night or two.

If you’re vacationing as a group and sharing a house, you could pool money to hire someone to cook and do the dishes for a few nights. Even if it’s just a nuclear family getaway, coordinate with your spouse to trade off kid duties here and there so each partner can read solo on the beach for an hour or so in between refereeing sandcastle squabbles.

6. Manage Work

Some people believe happiness comes from doing no work on vacation. I am not one of those people. The key is how much control you have of the situation. If you’re taking calls because your boss is making you, that’s going to be a source of resentment. But if you work for yourself or otherwise have autonomy in your schedule, and you want to do half an hour of work each morning before the rest of your family wakes up, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Just get it done, and then stay out of your inbox again until the next morning. I also find that vacations are great for thinking about big-picture career questions. I think about what projects would be good for me to tackle in the future, and return home with ideas to implement.

7. End On A High Note

The human brain gives outsized consideration to things that happened last in a series. This so-called "recency effect" means the end of a vacation is more easily recalled than the beginning. In a recent article on vacations, the Wall Street Journal suggested using this recency bias to consciously end vacations with a bang. If you’re only going to upgrade once, splurge on the business class seat on the way home, not the way there. Plan your big dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant for your final night, not your first.

8. Manage The Transition

While you can squeeze every last drop of vacation time by coming back late Sunday night, this can make Monday morning feel even more frantic than usual. If you hate that frantic feeling, then come back Saturday or early Sunday so you can check on anything urgent that happened in your absence, get groceries, and get the laundry going. Let yourself down easy by planning something low-key but fun for Monday evening. A quick drink with a friend after work gives you something to look forward to during what may be a brutal day.

9. Construct Your Story

Memories get shaped over time in how we choose to recount them. To make sure you remember your vacation as a positive thing, tell people your funny and enjoyable anecdotes. Show the beautiful pictures. The more you say, "I had the best vacation ever," the more it becomes true.