We’ve all been there: it’s the last day of vacation, and your stress levels haven’t budged from where they were at work last week. It feels like you need a vacation from your vacation. It seems counterintuitive, but having a happy, relaxing vacation actually takes some practice and planning. Luckily, science has your back. Here are 10 lessons from research on how you can make your next trip pleasant and memorable.
1. Don’t Force It …
Yes, you’re spending boatloads of money on this vacation, and yes, you’ll literally be in paradise. But like a new relationship or a meal from the mall food court, it’s best not to make concrete predictions about how it’ll change your life. A study published in March backs this up: it found that people who set broad emotional goals for an experience (“This vacation will be so fun!”) ended up more satisfied than those who made specific goals (“I’m going to feel incredibly relaxed,” or “This trip will change my perspective on the world.”).00:1200:59
2. … But Plan Ahead
Planning is the best part! No, really. According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life (sign us up!), vacationers report higher levels of happiness than non-vacationers — but only before the vacation. Afterward, there’s no difference in the happiness between someone who just backpacked around Europe and someone who just packed the kids’ backpacks for school. To make the most of it, revel in that pre-trip high by researching activities and restaurants, planning itineraries, and buying the stuff you’ll need.
3. Do New Things …
Traditions are great, but don’t let them control you. Being in a new place (or even a familiar annual destination) is the perfect time to shake things up — and it’s a good idea, according to science. There’s a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation that basically says no matter how good an experience is, it will get old and less enjoyable after a while. But it’s not just that doing the same old thing gets boring — there’s also the fact that your brain craves new things. For example, a study published this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that workers actually felt less stressed after learning new things than they did after relaxing. Another study found that doing “novel and challenging activities” together was a common thread among couples who maintain intense love through years of marriage. Find time to get out of your comfort zone, and you’ll be happier for it.
4. … But Maintain Some Routines
Which sounds like a better day: one where you’re hungover, sleep-deprived, and worn out, or one where you’re well-rested and energized? The answer is obvious, yet vacations can trigger some less-than-wise choices that could leave you feeling like garbage. As much as you should try new things, you should also do your best to avoid shocking your body. Go easy on the alcohol, try to eat about the same amount as you do at home, and do your best to maintain a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. If you do plan a challenging day — whether that’s hiking up a mountain or trying every swim-up bar at the resort — it’s a good idea to also plan some R&R the next day.
5. Lay Off the Social Media
We know, it’s so tempting to brag to all of your friends about the awesome view from your hotel window. But while this might not be news to many, social media is stressful. Studies show that even a five-day break from Facebook is enough to reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help you do more face-to-face socializing. And in a truly counterintuitive result, another study found that people remember experiences better when they don’t take pictures of them, either because the act of photographing made them pay less attention or because knowing they had a photo gave their brain an excuse to form less of a memory. The question to ask yourself: Is this vacation about you, or about your online friends?
6. Save the Best for Last
If you have a choice between planning the big fancy meal for the first night or the last night, go with the last night. That’s because of something called the peak-end rule, which says that you judge experiences not on how they felt overall, but on how they ended. You can use this to your advantage not only in your trip planning, but also in your individual activities: if you return from an activity to a ticket on your car, laugh it off and go get some ice cream (the ticket will still be there when you get back, we assure you); if you have to flag someone down to correct the restaurant bill at the end of the meal, take in some of the views before you depart. You’ll be happier for it.