My most memorable moments on holiday include: crashing a car while entering a supermarket car park; having to wear my husband’s underwear after my bag was lost by the airline (and thank goodness it was my bag that was lost and not his); and ending up in hospital after being repeatedly stung by a jellyfish (despite my husband’s claim that the ammonia in urine would make it better. It did not.)
Do holidays really make us happy?
Holidays are unpredictable – especially when you add children into the picture. Britons spend an average of £600 per person on our annual family holidays – we certainly invest in the industry – but research shows that most of us are not much happier after returning from a holiday. That’s an expensive way to be (or remain) unhappy.
Wanting to know how – or even if – science could help me make my family holiday better, I looked at the research. Here’s what I found out:
Anticipation is key
The anticipation of a pleasant experience is enough to light up all the right areas in our brain, producing feel-good hormones. In fact, the positive effect of anticipation is often stronger than the effect of the actual experience. Dutch researchers who looked at a large sample of vacationers vs non vacationers recorded marked differences in pre-trip happiness; differences in post-trip levels of happiness were much smaller.
How to foster happy anticipation:
- Counting the days: young children can count down to anything – my eldest recently started counting down to his birthday the day after we’d celebrated his last one.
- Book several short holidays – rather than one long one. This maximises anticipation and spreads the holiday period over a longer stretch. If this is impractical, you could also build a series of small side trips from your main destination, with some diverse activities thrown in, thereby spacing out and targeting the anticipation.
- Read up: build anticipation by getting to know your destination. My kids and I spend time looking at guidebooks, learning what the local delicacy is, and how to ask for it in the local language.
Get outside to get happy
A large study that used GPS data from more than 20,000 Britons confirmed something that we all suspected: we are happier when outdoors, and especially when we are by the sea. While natural sunlight leads to higher levels of vitamin D, exposure to green landscapes has been associated with psychological health and lower levels of depression.
Not surprisingly, seaside destinations are the most popular both within the UK and on our trips farther afield, with Cornwall topping the chart for those staying and Spain most popular amongst those going overseas.
And get active
Exercise is another way to boost our moods – and, thankfully, we don’t need to run a marathon to reap the benefits. Physiologists from the University of Vermont have found that a mere 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can boost our mood for up to 12 hours afterwards. A walk by the waves, a brisk swim or simply chasing the toddler round the local playground is likely to be the gift that keeps on giving, keeping everyone happy until bedtime.
No, I’m not snapping at my kids – although inevitably a family holiday will most likely include an argument or two – I’m taking more photos. Recent research from the University of Southern California found that people who took pictures of their pleasant experiences reported higher levels of happiness. Taking pictures seems to help us engage with experiences more deeply, in a way similar to mindfulness. In fact, even mental pictures were found to enhance our positive feelings.
Beware, however, that taking photos can also amplify negative feelings, so lay off the camera when the airline loses your bags or your daughter has a tantrum because you won’t buy her that second ice-cream.
As for the never-ending pouty selfies of the Instafamous? A couple of recent studies have linked selfies to narcissism, so I stick to more traditional picture taking (and use holidays as a chance to lay off the social media for a few days).
A photo posted by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on Jun 17, 2016 at 4:12pm PDT
Testing the theories
Was our last family holiday happier than previous efforts, thanks to my investigations? Yes, though this could be attributed to a variety of factors, including the facts that: the weather cooperated; my youngest slept through the night (at least twice); and the local taverna had some fantastic wine.
Still, when winter eventually creeps along, we will have some great photos to look back at, only a few of which are selfies. And these will, no doubt, inspire us to start planning our next break. Ah, the anticipation…
Alexia Barrable, a primary school teacher and mother, is the author, with the psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Jenny Barnett, of Growing Up Happy: 10 proven ways to increase your child’s happiness and well-being.