Wish you were here?

Christian Jarrett examines the psychology of holidays

A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.’ Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

The torrent of travel TV shows, newspaper supplements and guidebooks says it all. In life’s layers of daily drudgery, holidays provide the elusive seams of golden experience – the chance to forge cherished memories, to live freely, unshackled from the constraints of work and stress. Mere fantasy perhaps, but intuition tells us that these escapes from the quotidian grind must do us good, that a change of scene surely revitalises. What does psychology have to say? Do we actually enjoy our holidays once we get around to them? Are they beneficial? Strap yourself in for a tour of the field and some surprising answers.

Are holidays fun?

If you approach people who are holidaying and ask them what kind of mood they are in, it’s likely you’ll get a positive answer. At least that’s what tourism scholar Jeroen Nawijn based at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences found when he interviewed hundreds of international tourists in the Netherlands over a 19-day period in the spring of 2008, and hundreds more over 13 days in 2009. Overall, with nearly 96 per cent of the first sample reporting a positive mood, Nawijn concluded that holiday misery as portrayed by the media scare stories is a myth. Moreover, holiday happiness levels were unrelated to people’s age or socio-economic background. ‘Enjoying a holiday trip is universal,’ says Nawijn. ‘This is not surprising as holidaymaking is a voluntary activity, for adults anyway. If you don't like to take a vacation, then don’t. Certainly there are trips that turn into a nightmare, but these are really exceptions rather than the rule.’

Based on the way that people’s feelings varied according to the stage of holiday they were at, Nawijn has proposed a ‘holiday happiness curve’: people in the first 10 per cent of their holiday were generally in lower mood (what he calls the ‘travel phase’); those between 10 per cent and 80 per cent into the trip (the ‘core phase’) were in high mood; those at the period between 80 to 90 per cent of the trip were in lower mood (a ‘decline phase’); and finally, those in the final tenth of the holiday once again reported higher mood (a ‘rejuvenation phase’). Nawijn believes this last phase is where people have left behind the worries of packing and the frustration of the trip coming to an end. ‘They are able to enjoy their trip again,’ he says, ‘and possibly also look forward to coming home.’

Surprisingly perhaps, the type of holiday, and the activities engaged in that day, were not related to people’s self-reported happiness levels. Maybe most of us have a good sense of the kind of holidays we enjoy and stick to those? Factors that were associated with self-reported happiness were weather (no surprises there), stress levels, attitude towards one’s companions, and length of stay: people on mid-length holidays of between three to six days tended to report more positive mood than those on shorter or longer trips. ‘Possibly a two- to six-day holiday trip is long enough to enjoy (unlike a two-day trip),’ Nawijn surmised, ‘but short enough to minimise arguments with partner, family or friends.’

When it comes to the enjoyment of much longer holidays, say from two months to a year, the research simply hasn’t been done. ‘If someone takes such a long journey, one can only speculate as to the reasons why,’ says Nawijn. ‘Perhaps it’s a phase of life, leaving school, before entering college, or perhaps a midlife crisis or really a true desire to travel and discover. Who knows? But it would certainly be interesting to study the effect of these different motivations for lengthy travels on one’s sense of well-being.’

The ‘rosy-view effect’

So far the results seem promising enough, but the picture gets a little more complicated thanks to a curious phenomenon – ‘the rosy-view effect’ – documented in the late nineties by Terence Mitchell at the University of Washington and his colleagues. Based on surveys of three groups of participants before, during and after a 12-day tour of Europe, a five-day Thanksgiving vacation and a three-week bicycle trip across California, the researchers concluded that people generally anticipate and recall enjoying holidays far more than they really do enjoy them at the time (although, consistent with Nawijn’s research, the participants’ in-the-moment experiences were generally positive). The principal reason for the mismatch, based on participants’ diary records, seemed to be that the holiday experiences were peppered with let-downs, quickly forgotten on return. Another factor was minor distractions, the potholes of daily existence, which detracted from enjoyment during the holiday, but which were also quickly forgotten when reminiscing.

The rosy-view effect poses a quasi-philosophical problem – so long as we expect to enjoy our holidays and we recall an inflated enjoyment of them once we get back, does it matter what the experience was really like? In at least one practical sense, likely to be of particular interest to the travel industry, it seems it’s our memories that matter more than our true experience.

In 2003 Derrick Wirtz and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gauged the expected, actual and remembered enjoyment of 41 students taking their spring break, including trips to Florida, Europe and Kentucky. Consistent with the rosy-view effect, the students anticipated and recalled experiencing more positive emotions than they actually reported during their holiday. Contrary to the rosy-view effect, a similar pattern was also found for negative emotions, prompting the researchers to speculate that maybe it’s the intensity of emotion, good and bad, that’s overestimated before and after a holiday. Crucially, when Wirtz’s team asked the students whether they planned to go on the same holiday again, it was their remembered affective experience, rather than their actual experience, that predicted their stated decision.

This finding is all the more consequential in light of a later paper by Elizabeth Loftus, the University of California-Irvine doyenne of false memory research, in which she demonstrated the ease with which people’s holiday memories could be distorted. Together with her colleagues, Kathryn Braun-LaTour and Melissa Grinley, Loftus had half of 129 participants look at a Disneyland picture advert featuring the Warner Bros character Bugs Bunny, while the others saw a standard Disneyland ad. The participants, all of whom had themselves been to Disneyland, then read other people’s reminiscences about a holiday to the theme park. These were written in a style you might expect to find on an internet travel site, and critically, the same participants who saw the Bugs version of the advert read a reminiscence in which the narrator recalled meeting Bugs Bunny, among other characters, at Disneyland (an impossibility given Bugs Bunny’s Warner Bros origins).

The disconcerting finding is that when asked to recall their own Disneyland trip, the participants exposed to the misleading ad and narrative were significantly more likely (36 per cent vs. 8.7 per cent) to say erroneously that they too had met Bugs Bunny when they went to Disneyland. Replace the Bugs Bunny trick with misleading references about food or facilities on internet review sites and the profound implications of this study begin to register.

The lessons for the travel industry, Loftus and her team concluded, ‘…are huge. The most precious after-effect of a tourist’s experience is his or her memories, and through this and other research we now know that these are not sacrosanct. They can be distorted from the use of marketing, competition, Listservs, TV programs, etc.’

‘These sorts of manipulations of our autobiography are probably routinely occurring in real life,’ says Loftus, ‘and we’re not even aware that they have influenced us. We may have to get used to the idea that some of our memories may not really be our own.’

One final point in relation to holiday memories: if they play such an important role in our holiday-based feelings and decisions, then perhaps some lessons could be learned from the broader literature on hedonic experiences involving shorter events? In particular, research by Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues identified something called ‘the peak-end rule’ – that is, people’s overall memories of an experience showed a strong association with the average of the peak level of emotional feeling and the final level of emotion at the end of the experience. For example, a 1996 study found patients’ recall of colonoscopy was predicted by the peak-end rule rather than by the duration of the procedure. Applying this rule to our holidays would suggest we need to try to obtain as high a peak of enjoyment as we can, and to end on a high note. The rest might not matter so much.

Simon Kemp and his colleagues at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand investigated this very issue in a 2008 paper involving 49 holidaying participants who were surveyed before, every day during, and after their trip. The main finding was that although holiday duration didn’t make a difference to recalled happiness, the peak-end rule wasn’t that accurate either. Instead, overall recalled happiness on holiday was most strongly associated with participants’ happiness during their most memorable or unusual 24-hour period of the holiday.

‘One implication’, says Kemp, ‘is that if you want to have a memorable holiday then it helps to include one experience that is likely to be memorable – and much better if it is memorably good rather than memorably bad! Another is that the length of the holiday probably doesn’t matter too much for how you think about it afterwards – although it might from the point of view of relaxation.’

Kemp’s team further predicted that what constitutes the most memorable or unusual period of the holiday could be prone to change as time passes, meaning that the factors affecting our recalled happiness may well change from one week to the next. ‘More important,’ Kemp says, ‘they are likely to vary with what is otherwise occupying your mind at the time you are recalling.’

Are holidays beneficial?

Aside from the hoped-for pleasures they bring whilst we’re on them and the treasured memories they provide afterwards, many of us go on holidays in the belief that the experience will do us good, in terms of our health and well-being. Our employers too no doubt expect us to return revitalised and ready to tackle our work with renewed vigour.

There’s certainly some evidence that overseas travel can spur creativity. For example, William Maddux at INSEAD and Adam Galinsky at the Kellogg School of Management found that students who’d spent more time abroad were more likely to solve a creativity problem. Also, an epidemiological study published in 2000 involving thousands of men at risk of heart problems found that the more holidays they took, the more likely they were to survive the study’s nine-year follow-up period. ‘Vacations may not only be enjoyable but also health promoting,’ stated Brooks Gump and Karen Matthews at the University of Pittsburgh (findings like this should be a worry to US workers who have no statutory holiday entitlement – their average number of paid days leave is about 10. In contrast, full-time European workers are guaranteed at least 20 days paid leave a year).

These observations on creativity and longevity aside, quality research in the field of occupational psychology looking at the benefits of holidays is surprisingly thin on the ground. When Jessica de Bloom at Radboud University, Nijmegen and her colleagues performed a meta-analysis of the topic in 2009 they identified just seven suitable papers in the literature. Broadly speaking they were looking for studies that involved healthy participants and provided a pre- to post-comparison of well-being and other health factors.

Between them, these seven studies featured hundreds of participants in a variety of different occupations. The main message was that going on holiday had a small but significant positive effect on the workers’ well-being (the effect size was 0.43) when comparing ratings taken just after a holiday with a few days or weeks before. The disappointing news is how brief these benefits appeared to be. Two to four weeks after returning, participants lapsed back to their pre-holiday well-being levels – a phenomenon that researchers in the field call the ‘fade out effect’.

‘I think that the fade out effect is a natural phenomenon whereby people feel the same way if they are in the same environment,’ says de Bloom. ‘After returning home, vacationers are back at the normal work environment and accordingly also feel as they normally feel during working times: not bad, but not as positive as during times of more control, freedom and new experiences, i.e. the situation on holiday.’

Beyond this main finding, de Bloom and her team frowned collectively at how little we know about the psychological effects of holidays. The potentially contrasting effects of different holiday types and activities remains unknown and there were even too few studies in the meta-analysis to check the effect of different holiday lengths. A reliance on self-report also means no research group has yet looked objectively at actual work performance to see if this improves after a holiday.

‘We are currently busy investigating important issues regarding the effect of different types and durations of holidays and the role of vacation activities and experiences,’ de Bloom says. ‘The answer to these questions will hopefully lead to a number of practical implications that can help people to plan their vacations in order to achieve maximal recovery, experience pleasure of looking forward to a vacation, savour the experience of a vacation and prolong its positive effects.’

As well as being limited in scope, existing studies in the field are also scuppered by a methodological problem – the risk that observed effects presumed to be caused by the holiday experience could in fact be mere side-effects. Consider how the rush to meet deadlines before going away could adversely affect people’s well-being pre-holiday. In a pre- versus post-holiday design this would therefore inflate the apparent benefit of a holiday. Contrarily, measures taken on return could be skewed by the stress of coming back to a pile of work: this could have the effect of concealing true benefits garnered from having a vacation.

De Bloom and her colleagues made a start attempting to address this problem in a study of their own conducted last year, involving 96 Dutch workers employed in a range of different industries from IT to healthcare. A first baseline measure of well-being was taken two weeks before the participants’ winter sports holiday (average length was nine days), hopefully well before any potential adverse effects of rushing to get away. Also, measures were taken during the holiday using specially prepared mobile phones, and again once a week for several weeks on return, so that a more detailed picture of the fade out effect could be observed.

The good news is the in-holiday measures once again revealed evidence of a benefit – the workers felt in a better mood compared with their pre-holiday baseline, more energised and healthier. The bad news was that these benefits were all eradicated during the very first week back at work. The one anomaly in this regard was fatigue – the participants showed no benefits on this measure during their trips, perhaps because of the active nature of the holiday, but they did show a reduction in fatigue during their first week home. Disappointingly, this benefit was gone within two weeks.

Are they worth it?

The rapid fading out of holiday benefits may be a little demoralising, but fortunately some new research is beginning to provide clues for how to extend your post-holiday glow. For a 2006 paper, Charlotte Fritz at the Technical University of Braunschweig and Sabine Sonnentag at the University of Konstanz surveyed hundreds of non-academic university employees before, during and after a holiday. Participants generally reported feeling healthier after the holiday and experiencing work tasks as less effortful. As usual, this benefit faded quickly, but it was prolonged for those who didn’t face an accumulation of work on their return. So if you can find a way to avoid your work mounting up whilst your away, this could help prolong the benefits of a break. Avoiding negative thoughts about work while away was also associated with better outcomes post-holiday.

Another paper published just this year by Jana Kühnel and Sabine Sonnentag involved a survey of 131 German teachers before and three times after they took a two-week Easter vacation. Once again, a holiday benefit was found, in terms of reduced emotional exhaustion and increased work engagement, and yet again this was short-lived, fading out entirely within one month. Crucially, though, it faded out more slowly for teachers who used spare time in the evenings and weekends post-holiday to relax. ‘Why is relaxation important?’ Sonnentag asks. ‘Relaxation should help to reduce the strains accumulated during the working days.’ That one nugget is the good news, the bad news is that continuing a relaxation regimen after a holiday only delayed the inevitable. The fade out was slowed down for the first two weeks only. Findings like this beg the question – are holidays worth all the hassle and expense? Is it worth digging for those seams of gold?

Sonnentag believes holidays are definitely worth it. ‘Although the beneficial effects fade out quickly, not having any holidays/vacations would probably be very problematic because the strain would accumulate over time,’ she says. De Bloom agrees emphatically: ‘Vacations give people the opportunity to (re)connect to family, partner and friends,’ she says. ‘They help us to “refill our batteries”, remain productive and perform on high levels. The fact that the after-effects are short-lived only emphasises that we should go on a vacation more frequently in order to keep our levels of health and well-being high.’ Who could possibly disagree with that?

Box text 1: The good times (see PDF)

What constitutes the good times on holiday – those moments you wish you could bottle up and savour for ever? Malene Gram at Aalborg University in Denmark addressed this question in the context of family holidays. She interviewed 26 German and Danish families for a paper published in 2005, finding that the answer depended to a large extent on whether you ask children or parents.

For kids, it was moments of activity and absorption, such as roller-coaster rides, and sensory experiences, such as the leather-like feel of a giraffe’s tongue, that were most cherished. For parents, by contrast, relaxation was vital, as was knowing that their children were having a good time. Some parents also recalled fond memories of rediscovering their own inner child.

Moments of togetherness were particularly savoured – a factor that clashed somewhat with the adults’ need for quiet periods of relaxation away from their kids. Ice-cream was a recurring theme: when families sat down together to enjoy an ice-cream (some of them reported doing this several times a day) this seemed to act as a bonding activity and also provided a rich sensory memory for the children. ‘The ice-cream situation seems to be a very harmonic moment,’ Gram wrote.

‘Wow!’ situations were also mentioned – one six-year-old boy recalled the time that a killer whale splashed water, soaking the audience. A mother reminisced fondly about the time on a ferry ride when some passengers erupted into song, playing their musical instruments spontaneously.

How do parents gauge the success of a holiday? One mother said that on the way back, if the kids ‘fall asleep in the car right away, then we know it has been good’.

For parents hoping to foster some golden moments on holiday, Gram says it’s important to be realistic about how we spend time together: ‘Enjoy intense moments of togetherness,’ she advises, ‘but make sure to give every family member time and space to be themselves and do whatever is important in the construction of their holiday, too.’

Box 2: The bad times (See PDF)

People long for the rhythmic sound of lazy waves, the squidge of warm sand between their toes (or substitute your own holiday fantasy). Yet all too often, having reached their destination, illness strikes: lethargy, a sore throat perhaps, or a thumping pain in the temples. Psychologists call this ‘leisure sickness’.

Most of what we know about this concept is anecdotal, but a 2002 pilot study by Ad Vingerhoets and his colleagues at Tilburg University suggested leisure sickness is fairly common – of 1128 men and women surveyed, around 3 to 4 per cent said they suffered from illnesses more on holidays and at weekends than when at work. Just what causes leisure sickness is largely speculative at the moment. In a 2007 commentary, Guus Van Heck and Vingerhoets outlined various possible causes including: changes to lifestyle (many people drink more/less coffee or alcohol on holiday than at home; sleep patterns may also be different); a change of focus (without the distraction of work, people may become more aware of their bodily states); and stress-related processes (the body may balance out the effects of chronic stress at work, and once that source of stress is removed suddenly, the immune system is left out of kilter). Some people may be more prone to leisure sickness than others. The 2002 pilot study suggested that people who are particularly committed to their work, who are perfectionists and who find it difficult to relax, may be especially at risk. Highly extravert characters may also suffer from a loss of stimulation and challenge that can manifest as boredom-induced illness.

Given the established benefits of an illness-free holiday, Vingerhoets says managers and doctors should take leisure sickness more seriously and provide those who suffer from it with useful guidelines. ‘Perhaps a work-out demarcating and emphasising the transition from work to non-work may be helpful to “unwind” the body and better adjust to a the demand-free state,’ he says.

On a related note, although epidemiological research suggests holidays help reduce the risk of heart problems long-term, unfortunately for some people with a pre-existing problem, it seems holidays and holiday travel can be the trigger for a heart attack. Willem Kop (now also at Tilburg University) and colleagues in a 2003 study found that risk was greatest during the first two days, car travel was a particular risk, as was staying in a tent or mobile home rather than a hotel. Traffic jams and proximity to irritating travel companions were the obvious adverse factors relevant to these situations. ‘High-risk patients need to be alerted to the unique physical and mental activities specific to vacation travel that can act as triggers of acute coronary syndromes during their vacation,’ the researchers concluded. However, Vingerhoets, a co-author, points out that since most of these patients were high-risk, ‘it’s very likely that they would also have developed these heart problems in the home or work setting’.

Dr Christian Jarrett is The Psychologist’s staff journalist. [email protected]


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