The smartest way to take a vacation


From Wall Street Journal

Scientists study how to get the most benefits in health and well-being from a getaway

Should you take a brief vacation, or a weekslong excursion? Go somewhere new, or relax at the family beach house?

Psychologists and researchers have been studying how to create an ideal vacation that boosts our well-being, relieves stress that can impact our health, and helps us recharge for returning to work. Some conclusions: Longer vacations aren’t necessarily better than shorter ones. Engage in activities you haven’t done before, even if you’re at home on a staycation. And end a trip on a high note.

The days before and after a vacation are also important. Anticipating what you will be doing can bring greater emotional rewards than remembering a trip after you return, research shows. And while post-vacation bliss tends to dissipate quickly, there are tips for holding on to it a little longer.

“During holidays, health and well-being increase quite rapidly,” often just two days into a vacation, said Jessica de Bloom, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Tampere in Finland. Dr. de Bloom, an organizational psychologist, researches the effects of vacations in part by calling study participants while they are away on trips and questioning them about how they feel and their levels of tension, fatigue and happiness, among other measures.

Her advice: Take shorter, more frequent vacations. “Holidays work more like sleep. You need regular recovery from work in order to stay healthy in the long run,” Dr. de Bloom said.

Vacations make us feel better, and they are important for our health, researchers say. Studies show vacations reduce the risk of heart attacks and depression, relieve stress and can lead to improved work performance and creativity.

In a study of 54 people vacationing for an average of 23 days, Dr. de Bloom and co-researchers found that measures of health and wellness improved during vacation compared with baseline, peaking at the eighth day before gradually declining.

“It could be that eight days is the ideal to fully gain the benefits of a holiday,” said Dr. de Bloom. The study was published in 2013 in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Laura Beatrix Newmark, of New York, has tried getaways of different durations. Her ideal vacation: nine days. “You really feel like you can get into a different zone and then when you come back you feel like you’re in a different mind-set,” said the 38-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two young children.

Some psychologists recommend drawing out the planning and anticipation of going away. In one study, researchers conducted a series of experiments comparing anticipation to reflection. One of the scenarios included imagining a vacation, said Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder and lead author of the study. The researchers found that anticipation led to more intense and satisfying emotions than the act of remembering past experiences. The study was published in 2007 in the journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“We pre-live experiences—that’s very emotionally arousing,” said Dr. Van Boven. “Once it’s in the past we tend to adopt more of a distant perspective from the experience.”

Having autonomy while on vacation also increases its benefits, experts say. Try to take control of the course of the day. For example, don’t let the alarm clock tell you when to get up, wake up naturally, said Dr. de Bloom. Take steps so you will be in control of your time, deciding which activities you want to do or not.

Mentally detaching from the working world also is important. Some executives have begun making this company policy, along with requiring employees to use up all their vacation time.

“While you’re on vacation you’re prohibited from contacting anyone in the company for business reasons and they are prohibited from contacting you,” said David Morken, chief executive of Bandwidth, a Raleigh, N.C., technology company with about 500 employees.

Mr. Morken said there was some resistance in the company when he first instituted the policy, but that faded when the benefits became clear. “Everyone gets a chance to recharge, unplug and actually go dark and get off the grid on vacation,” he said.

For some people, not checking email at all can make a vacation more stressful, said Samantha Boardman, a psychiatrist in New York City who writes about positive psychology issues in her blog “Positive Prescription.”

“Designate a time in the morning and maybe a time in the evening to check email,” she said. Turning off the phone helps to share experiences with the people you’re with. And put down the camera occasionally. “You do sometimes miss the moment when you take a picture,” she said.

Dr. Boardman recommends people pursue new experiences and places while on vacation. “Once we’ve already seen somewhere we’re not necessarily absorbing what’s new about it. People who always go to the same place will often sort of start to have memories blur.” Staycations can work as vacations, but make an effort to “experience something familiar in an unfamiliar way,” she said.

Studies show people often reflect on an experience, including a vacation, based largely on how it ends. “Do your best to make things end well. If you’re going to splurge and fly business class, don’t do it on the way there, do it on the way home,” said Dr. Boardman.

Unfortunately, the positive effects of a vacation don’t last long, normally no more than a week. In one study, nearly 1,000 people in the Netherlands who went on vacation were asked about their happiness before and after a trip. Their responses were compared with those of more than 500 people who continued their everyday life during the same period.

The vacationers reported a higher degree of happiness before their vacation, compared with those who stayed home. But there was no significant difference between the two groups’ happiness post-vacation. Only when vacationers reported a “very relaxed” trip did their increased happiness linger for a few more weeks, said Jeroen Nawijn, a senior lecturer in tourism at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, who was lead author on the study, published in 2010 in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life.

Experts say easing back into work can help extend the post-vacation bliss. A 2010 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, which surveyed 131 teachers in Germany, found avoiding excessive work following vacation and getting leisure time in the evenings prolonged the benefits of the vacation.