Vacations are deceptively complex.
By their very nature they’re meant to be stress-free, so we assume we shouldn’t put too much thought into them.
But the research from behavioural science tells us that certain strategies will almost always make some trips better than others — both in cost and overall satisfaction.
Here’s how to take the perfect vacation.
Plan as far ahead as you can to build anticipation.
As behavioural economist Dan Ariely points out, one week-long trip to Disney World is actually composed of three things: months of anticipation to see Mickey, the trip itself, and the pangs of nostalgia you experience for years to come.
To maximise our enjoyment, we have to cater to all three stages.
Airfare is cheapest approximately 57 days before your flight, so it’s wise to hold off on finalising until then, but you should still browse hotels or take virtual Mad Tea Party rides on YouTube months before. One 2010 study even found the majority of people were happier before their trip than after they returned.
It’s essentially the same reason you’re happier on Friday than on Sunday. Anticipation is a powerful thing.
Limit yourself to a few options to minimise regret.
Do you take a cruise in the Caribbean? A hike through the Rockies? What about a food tour in New Orleans? And how do you guarantee selecting one won’t make you regret not choosing the others?
Psychologists have shown that when the human brain encounters too many options, it shuts down. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it the “paradox of choice.” Some choice is better than none, he says, but it doesn’t hold that more is better than less.
Before your trip, narrow down the final choice to just two options. You’ll feel better knowing you picked the best one.
Cap the vacation at a week — you won’t remember two.
Famed behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman argues we’re made up of two selves: our experiencing self and our remembering self. The experiencing self lives in the moment. The remembering self lives in the past.
Our remembering self has a hard time telling apart a one-week vacation from a two-week one because, as Kahneman says, “
there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story.” From the perspective of the remembering self, short and long vacations are effectively equal.
Give yourself time to mentally ease into vacation mode.
Al Gini, a Loyola University of Chicago business ethics professor and the author of “The Importance of Being Lazy,” says people need a few days to unwind before they settle into their trip. Gini advises people to take those few days before the trip actually starts by packing ahead of time and getting chores out of the way.
The less you rush, the easier it will be to start the trip on the right foot.
Spend money on experiences, not stuff, to maximise happiness.
Vacations are already on the right track when it comes to maximizing happiness: Buying experiences over the Cool New Thing is probably going to make you happier.
You can take the wisdom into the vacation itself. Minimise the budget you set for coffee mugs and hoodies so you can spend as much time as possible building those precious memories that your remembering self will love.
Explore in the beginning, savour at the end.
Brian Christian, computer scientist and co-author of “Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions,” says probability can help us decide when to try new things and when to do the familiar.
It’s called the “explore/exploit” problem. (“Exploit” here is a computing term that basically means “savour.”)
“One should generally be more exploratory at the start of a vacation … and more ‘exploitative’ at the end,” he tells Tech Insider. This is because your chance of finding something better than your favourites goes down as time passes.
Everything is new on Day 1, so embrace it. But by Day 7, you pretty much know what you like. Even if you make a great discovery, you won’t have time to come back. So savour your favourites.
When possible, do things worth remembering.
Another finding from Kahneman is the so-called “peak-end rule.” It claims people best remember the peak of certain events and the ends. If I gave you a list of names, for instance, you’d probably remember last names on the list and the most unique one.
Vacations work the same way. If you can, schedule the ziplining or the big winery tour toward the middle and the giant bonfire at the end.
Once you’re home, talk about your trip to make your memories permanent.
If a rafting trip got you super fired up, tell all your friends about it over coffee once you get back. The research on happiness suggests people can preserve how they feel about an experience by talking about it.
A 2015 study even found people reported greater happiness levels when they talked about their experiences rather than their material purchases. It’s a surefire way to keep the joys of vacation alive, even in the months after you’ve returned to your cubicle.
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