What people think will make them happy often doesn’t…

Was your last vacation everything you hoped it would be? Studies show that people often are disappointed by their vacations because their getaways don’t feel memorable or special enough. And what enjoyment they do get fades as soon as they return to everyday life. In my field of behavioral economics, I study the happiness and satisfaction people derive from choices they make about how to use their money, time and energy. When it comes to vacations, I’ve learned that what people think will make them happy often doesn’t. And I’ve learned some simple strategies for enjoying vacations much more…

Do lots of research and planning ahead of time. It sounds counterintuitive, but people get the biggest boost in happiness from the anticipation in the weeks before their vacations. All the planning, dreaming, reading guidebooks and surfing the Internet for recommendations doesn’t just serve to enhance the actual vacation — it can be one of the best parts of the vacation. The more extensive your preparation — even going so far as to take a scuba-diving course before going to an exotic beach locale or a foreign language course before going to Europe — the more elation you will feel overall.

Consider taking multiple shorter vacations rather than one long one. Duration counts for very little when you recall a vacation experience and how it makes you feel. Enjoying several three- or four-day weekends throughout the year has the same energizing and stress-reducing effects as hoarding your vacation days for a two-week grand tour. It’s also easier to do — and less guilt-inducing if you have a demanding job — plus you get the pleasure of anticipating several trips.

Another disadvantage of long trips is that vacationers adapt very quickly to their vacation and get less and less pleasure as the trip goes along. Example: The first night at a five-star hotel is magnificent. After a few nights, you’re annoyed that room service isn’t prompt enough… or that the pool doesn’t stay open late enough.

Of course, you can’t travel very far if you’re just going for a few days, so if you do decide to take a longer vacation, you may get more satisfaction out of it if you break it into two or three distinct periods, changing locations and activities for each segment.

Plan at least one high point during the vacation. People tend to think it’s the overall average of the various vacation experiences (easy travel, good food, good weather) that determines your happiness. But studies reveal that what really matters is doing something memorable. That might be attending a special musical concert or hiking through ancient ruins. Even if everything else is just so-so, the memory of that peak moment and the sense of vitality it provides can leave you feeling great about your vacation.

In fact, peak moments are a far more important factor than how much money you spend or whether you do everything on your itinerary. So if you come across a museum that you absolutely adore, your best bet is to go ahead and spend the rest of the day there and skip the sights you may have felt obligated to visit.

If you prefer the familiar to the new on your vacations — such as relaxing at the same beach house each year — you still can improve your satisfaction level over previous years. Try injecting some variety into your stay, even if it’s just cooking a meal that you’ve never tried before and inviting acquaintances you just met to share it with you.

Save the high point for near the very end of your trip. People often are eager to get to their favorite restaurant or activity right away on a trip, but that actually can work against maximizing your enjoyment. Memories of a great first day will have faded by the end of the trip, but not before making everything else that follows seem a little less special. Our research suggests that how you feel on the last day of your trip colors your impression of the overall experience almost as much as peak moments, so make that day a fulfilling one. Avoid hanging around the hotel on your last day because you’re tired or have postcards to write.

Don’t sweat the low points during a vacation. Getting your passport stolen in Italy or the airline losing your luggage may seem ruinous to your trip. But if you don’t view them as disasters, such events really don’t deter from your enjoyment of a vacation. In fact, if a vacation headache is memorable enough, you might even recall it fondly. Examples: While dealing with a stolen passport, you met some delightful Italians… your adventures with your lost luggage become a funny story that you tell for years to come.

Take photos, but not too many. Avoid documenting your entire trip with hundreds of shots. Taking and keeping many photos dulls positive memories because when you see all of them, you’re reminded of all the relatively tedious moments. You need just a few photos of spectacular moments to trigger powerful and pleasing memories.

Keep the memories of your vacation alive once you get home. Studies indicate that the pleasurable feelings you get from a vacation fade very fast. The boost to your happiness is gone within a few weeks unless you make a conscious effort to shape and enhance the memories and feelings.

To help do this, display a few select photos from the vacation where you can see them every day (on your computer screen saver or your night table). Also, relive the trip with friends and family. The more you can use your vacation in social situations to provide conversational fodder, the longer lasting your enjoyment.

Source: Daniel Ariely, PhD, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. He is a regular commentator on National Public Radio’s Marketplace and author of The New York Times best seller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home (both from Harper). www.DanAriely.com

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