Nov 10

What’s the Best Vacation Plan for Happiness?

Joy is bringing you some of our smartest, most financially savvy content for the past year. In the crazybusy leadup to the holidays, it’s important to remember that making time for your happiness can make your life richer — as well as your wallet. 


Dear Liz,

I’m looking ahead to next year and trying to figure out the best way to use my vacation time. I want to see new places, relax, try new things, and have something to look forward to during a long work week. In general, which is better: A few long weekend vacations or one big trip?

— Ready for Vacay


Dear Ready for Vacay,

This is a great dilemma to have. But actually, when it comes to vacation, it turns out that the duration doesn’t affect your satisfaction levels. One 2013 study found that, among people who took extended vacations, happiness peaked at about day eight. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily spring for a week-long break. Another study found that people tend to be happier before a vacation, returning to their baseline happiness level once they got home. Research conflicts, and in general, the best vacation option is the one that works for your plans and budget.


While you can’t go wrong with either option, there are a few considerations that might help you maximize your vacation happiness.


What’s your work/vacation style?

Some people take a long time to prep for travel and to ease back into their everyday routines. Some people may find that they don’t like being out of the office loop for a long time. Thinking back to past experiences — how you felt preparing for a weeklong trip compared to preparing for a three-day weekend — may give you a sense of how either option will feel as it comes closer.


That’s because it’s easy to focus on the good things about vacation — the poolside drinks, the fantastic food, the king-size bed with a million pillows. But there are the other, less great things, like the stress of getting to the airport, the packing, and the feeling of having to tie up loose ends before you go. Knowing how you handle that stress may indicate as to whether it’s best to do one big vacation or spread out your time into smaller trips.


What will give you the most significant pre-vacation boost?

Some of the biggest happiness gains from vacation are found in the time leading up to a trip. Research shows that positive anticipation can shift your mood. Since this pre-vacation happiness boost is measurable, you want to choose travel that sustains excitement. That doesn’t mean you need to go to a new place every time. A bucket-list long trip could maintain your excitement, or you may prefer a few short out of town jaunts.


What will keep the vibes going?

When you come back from your trip, you may feel like a whole new person. One 2016 study found that immediately post-vacation, you’re immune system is boosted, your body is de-stressed, and you may have an increased sense of wellbeing. Tune into this “vacation flow” feeling. How can you recreate it at home? Maybe it’s enjoying coffee in the morning on your deck, the way you did at your hotel. Maybe it’s taking a yoga class. Maybe it’s reading a good book. Or maybe it’s researching your next trip.


What are you waiting for?

No matter what option you choose, make sure to take every vacation day offered to you. You don’t need to get out of town, but getting out of the office is a smart move. Not only do you deserve a break, but doing so may make you a better worker. One eye-opening study found that people who took 11 or more of the vacation days offered to them were 30 percent more likely to get a raise than people who didn’t. In other words, that vacay might make you money down the line. In the meantime, enjoy.


Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write her at and check back every Tuesday for her next column.


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