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How To Squeeze All The Happiness Possible Out Of Your Vacation Days

Vacation time is precious, so which is better for your happiness? Taking one splashy trip to an exotic location, or several mini-trips throughout the year?

How To Squeeze All The Happiness Possible Out Of Your Vacation Days
[Image: Flickr user Dan Queiroz]

Summer vacation season is almost upon us, which means it’s time for the usual hand-wringing over the modern relationship with leisure.

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Things may be looking up–a recent AmEx survey of small business owners found 60% planned to take at least a week off, the highest proportion since 2006.

Still, travel websites will put out press releases claiming we leave vacation days on the table. Various gurus will lament the statistics on how many of us check email on days off.

But even if there might be much to like about the European approach of disappearing for August, there’s no point letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. You can score a lot of the benefits of vacations by planning–now–to take the mini-vacation route to happiness this summer.

The first key insight is that vacations themselves don’t necessarily make people happier. Most people claim they’d like to travel more, but travel is–in the moment–a mixed bag. I just got back from a lovely trip to wine country in California, and I will tell anyone who listens about my wonderful memories, but there was stress too: trying to navigate San Francisco traffic during rush hour; being groggy from a time change.

A 2010 study in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life found that vacationers are happier than people who don’t take vacations, but the major happiness boost comes before the vacation, as you anticipate your fun to come.

Looking at your calendar, and seeing a vacation looming in the distance, is like being a kid in the weeks before Christmas. The actual present un-wrapping takes an hour. It’s the anticipation that lets the joy stretch out for a month.

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Consequently, planning in your vacations far ahead of time lets you revel in this anticipation. As you schedule in your meetings over the next few months, you’ll keep seeing that Labor Day fun booked. You’ll picture what that fun will be like, and daydream about it when you’re stuck on boring conference calls.

Of course, that’s true of vacations in general. But here’s the upside of short trips. We live in the real world where time and money are always limited. Research also finds that happiness is more a function of small, frequent pleasures than big, infrequent pleasures.

How to Make Eight Strategic Vacation Days Happen

Amazing as it might be, most of us don’t have the time or money to take a week-long vacation every single month of the year. Most of us can’t take a two-month long vacation in the summer. But we could take eight vacations over the course of the summer if each was shorter and less expensive. Eight vacations means eight happiness jolts, not just one.

So how can you seize those eight jolts of happiness? Start by coming up with a summer bucket list–a list of things you’d love to do that aren’t too far from home. I’m lucky in that my home outside Philadelphia is less than two hours from both the beach and the mountains, so my summer list includes eating lobster on the water front in Cape May, New Jersey, and biking the Lehigh Gorge trail near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

Wherever you live, there are no doubt plenty of amazing opportunities around. Buy or borrow a tourist book on your region and make a list. If you look for cheap air fare, and plan to stay with friends, you might be able to take short flights somewhere too.

Then look at your calendar and figure out strategic vacation days–those around three-day weekends that could give you four day stretches, or a lot of half-vacation days on Fridays if you’ve got summer Fridays in your organization. If you plan your days right, you may never be more than a week from another fun holiday or excursion. You’d always have something amazing right around the corner.

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To be sure, many people do find long vacations exciting, and if you can swing a three-week trip to China, by all means do. But if you can’t, there’s no need to mope. There are a lot of roads to happiness, and many of them don’t require much time to get there.

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About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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