How to have a better holiday

Summertime is invariably associated with holidays. In last week's Southern Star, I asked: can psychology help you to have better holidays? The column is now online. 


Holidays are worth thinking about. Studies confirm holidays bring many psychological benefits. Taking time out is important for mental health and your sense of well-being. Holidays foster gratitude and can bring people closer together. Problems that seem pressing in your daily life can fade away when we get away. Holidays help us switch off and get in touch with our values and aspirations.


Different people want different things from a holiday, but psychological research shows some simple tweaks can improve your holiday, whatever type you take. Psychologist Dan Ariely likes to say there are three stages to any good holiday – the months of anticipation prior to the holiday, the holiday itself, and the nostalgia you feel years later. To make sure you get the most from your holiday, you should invest in each of these stages.


The pleasures of anticipation should not be underestimated. In one psychological experiment, participants said they would pay more money to kiss their favourite celebrity in three days' time instead of kissing them immediately. They recognised the pleasure was not just about the kiss – it was also about the anticipation. Anticipation explains why people love Fridays (when they are still at work) and hate Sunday evenings (when they're off work but anticipating their return). The pleasure of anticipation means it makes sense to plan your holiday, to imagine how you will spend your days, to enjoy the sheer pleasure of thinking about it. 


Now, the holiday itself. Make sure to have at least one peak experience and plan something memorable for the end of your holiday. Why? Psychologists have shown that our memories are faulty; when we look back on an experience, our assessment tends to be coloured by the high point and by how the experience ended (this is known as the peak-end rule). So, a pretty good holiday might seem like a pretty bad one if it ends on a sour note, and vice-versa. Similarly, one really memorable experience, one high point, will linger in the memory long after other days are forgotten. Consequently, even if you're looking forward to chilling out and doing as little as possible during your holiday, aim for at least one emotionally intense experience.



How long should your holiday be? There's no set rule but generally, two one-week breaks are better than one two-week break. Time moves more slowly when we are enjoying new experiences. Each trip creates a new memory; that's why years later, a two-week holiday in the one place doesn't seem twice as good or to have created twice as many memories as a one-week holiday in the same place. Of course, you might need a longer period to recharge, or it might not be practical to take multiple short breaks, but it may be worth considering ways you can vary your holiday – doing so will make your break seem longer and will give you more memories that you can draw upon years later.


The post-holiday period, too, is important. If you had a great holiday, reflect upon the reasons why. Are there things you did differently? Perhaps you took the time to properly appreciate breakfast, or you went for a walk every morning before breakfast, or you took more walks with your partner. Many things we do on holidays are things we should do every day; see if you can recreate these positives.




The boost you get when you buy something – new clothes, a car, a fancy smartphone – is short-lived, but positive experiences are different. 'The justification that people sometimes give for spending money on material possessions rather than experiences – that “at least I’ll always have the possession” but the experience will “come and go in a flash” – is backwards', writes Cornell psychologist Prof Thomas Gilovich. 'Psychologically, it is the experience that lives on and the possession that fades away. Experiences live on in the memories we cherish, the stories we tell, and the enhanced sense of self they help us construct'.



That's what's great about holidays, or indeed any positive experience. They don't die when the holiday ends; the memories they leave mean they can live forever.