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November 15, 2016

Happy holiday? Research shows that all vacations are not equal

For better or worse, America has a long-standing reputation as being a nation of workaholics. So much so, that even when given paid vacation time, U.S. workers often choose to forfeit their days off.

According to a recent study by Project: Time Off, Americans left 658 million vacation days on the table, with 222 million of those lost altogether because they couldn't be rolled over or paid out in any way. A 2016 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that less than half of all working adults have used all or most of their vacation days.

Those surveyed cite fears of work piling up while they're gone, losing the chance for a promotion, or simply not being able to afford a big trip. By burning the midnight oil at the office, workers may be giving their career a momentary boost — but harming their health and well-being in the long run.

Much has been written about the consequences of workaholism — stress-related illness, depression and lower marital cohesion to name a few. But on the other hand, what does scientific research say about the beneficial effects of vacation and travel on one's health? Does taking a holiday boost happiness even after the trip is over? And are some types of vacations better for peace of mind than others?

“The messages from all the media we're bombarded with, they tell a particular story about happiness,” said Robert Waldinger, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who spoke at the Happiness 360 Conference in Aruba. “They would have us believe that wealth, becoming famous, and achieving enormous things at work — that those are the tickets to having a good life.”

Waldinger heads the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study that has been following two groups of men for the last 75 years to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging. One group consists of 268 individuals who enrolled in the study as Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1939 to 1944. The 456 men in the second group came from the opposite side of the tracks, calling Boston's poorest neighborhoods their home.

"...Paying for ... experiences brings us greater happiness and happiness for a longer period of time than buying specific things. Experiences become part of us. They change us, and we're able to relive them over and over again.” – Robert Waldinger, Harvard Medical School

The subjects filled out questionnaires every two years about their physical and mental health, marital quality, career, and other aspects of their lives. They also did medical tests and long interviews every 5 to 10 years.

“What we learned wasn't that the happiest people were the wealthiest, the most famous, or the hardest-working,” said Waldinger. “What we kept learning over and over again, as we wrote paper after paper, was that the people who were the happiest and healthiest throughout their lives were the people who were most connected to others — to friends, to family, to community.”

One effective way of feeling more connected to other people is through shared new experiences. Instead of spending money on material things, multiple studies have found that people derive more satisfaction from paying for experiences — so, finally taking that trip to Patagonia instead of buying the new Google smartphone.

Experiences have the power to enhance social relations and form a bigger part of a person's identity, whereas material things quickly become part of the new normal. People are also less likely to compare their own experiences to others because they're more likely to be unique.

“A ticket to an art exhibit, paying for a new outdoor activity like parasailing or snorkeling, learning a new skill, or traveling — paying for those experiences brings us greater happiness and happiness for a longer period of time than buying specific things,” he said. “Experiences become part of us. They change us, and we're able to relive them over and over again.”

In this way, taking a memorable vacation may keep paying happiness dividends even after the trip ends because of the stories that can be told for years afterwards.


But what makes for a memorable, happiness-boosting holiday? A 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life surveyed 1,530 individuals on happiness before and after a holiday trip, finding that vacationers reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness as compared to non-vacationers. But after returning home, only those vacationers who rated their trip as “very relaxing” as opposed to “stressful or neutral” had an uptick in happiness that lasted up to two weeks.

“In other words, from the standpoint of well-being research, all travel is not equal — different kinds of travel have different well-being profiles,” said David Yaden, research fellow at The University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center.

Stress on holiday most often comes from poor planning, according to a 2013 study. Transportation uncertainties, wasting time figure things out on the trip, and being unfamiliar with the location led to a more frazzled and less enjoyable experience away from home.

A growing sector of the tourism industry focuses on health and wellness as the primary reason to get away. Yoga retreats, meditation workshops, and spa resorts all cater to the vacationer who desires less of the hustle-and-bustle of vacations and more relaxation and repose.

“I think retreats are an under-used form of travel that can significantly boost well-being,” said Yaden. “In a recent study, a resort vacation was compared with a meditation retreat. While both groups reported increased well-being and lower stress, these effects persisted longer in the retreat group — even after they had returned home.”

The study, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, involved 94 healthy women who stayed at a California resort for six days. Half of the women joined a meditation training program while at the resort, while the rest had a regular vacation. The researchers examined changes in expression patterns of 20,000 genes before and after the trip, finding that both groups had notable changes in gene activity related to stress response and immune function.

Also, the results of self-reported questionnaires revealed that the meditators had fewer symptoms of depression and less stress for a longer time after the trip than the non-meditators.

“It's a human right to travel — the right to relax, enjoy the world, do business, and educate yourself,” said Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), at the Happiness 360 Conference. “Travel makes us different people, and it broadens our hearts and our minds. We see the world in a different way, and believe me when I say, the world is a better place with travel.”

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