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We’re happiest before rather than after a vacation, research suggests

Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley has some rather discouraging news for summer vacationers.

Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley has some rather discouraging news for summer vacationers.

Years of research, she says, points to an “inescapable conclusion”: Vacationers are no more happy after they return home than their peers who never left town.

In fact, studies suggest that the only time our vacations really make us happy is right before they start — perhaps because that’s when we’re anticipating all the glorious sights, sounds, food, people and adventures we’re about to encounter.

But even if our vacation lives up to some of the hype we heap on it beforehand (especially our fantasies about it being stress-free and relaxing), that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to bring those good feelings home with us. At least, not for long.

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“Sure,” writes Begley, “take a vacation in hopes that it will relieve your burnout, but within three to four weeks people are feeling as stressed out as before, found a 2001 study. … That may be one reason the sense of happiness fades as well: if you feel just as much burnout a month after returning from vacation as you did before, no wonder you’re grouchy.”

A 2009 meta-analysis of seven separate studies reached the same conclusion.

Bummer. (As Begley also notes.)

Why this post-vacation letdown? “For one thing,” writes Begley, holiday trips are not 24/7 bliss. There are missed flight connections, disappointing hotels, bad food and illness. Looking back on all that, once we’re back home, can understandably put a dent in our happiness. Also, what’s called the peak-end effect can affect post-trip mood. The most intense experiences (peak) and those that occur as the vacation is winding down (end) leave the most lasting impressions. If we fail to pack a few ultrahighs into a trip (swim with the dolphins one day, climb a volcano another) and instead have a lot of so-so pleasant experiences — or start the trip with a bang but end it in a letdown whimper — then post-trip happiness will suffer.”

The take-home tip from all this research: Break your vacation time into several shorter trips.

“The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip,” Jeroen Nawinj, a tourism research lecturer at Breda University of Applied Science in the Netherlands, told the New York Times earlier this year. “What you can do is try to increase that by taking more trips per year. If you have a two week holiday you can split it up and have two one week holidays. You could try to increase the anticipation effect by talking about it more and maybe discussing it online.”

OK. Well, I’m thinking of taking a long, relaxing, slow-traveler-type sojourn to the Italian countryside next year.

I feel better already.