The Science Behind Taking a Great Vacation

The benefits of taking a vacation are well-known—but how can you make the most of your rest and relaxation? Science and psychology may have an answer.
July 20, 2017

In this 24/7, always-connected world, it can be difficult for many people to disconnect. According to a 2016 report from Project Time Off, 55 percent of 5,461 American workers surveyed left vacation time unused in 2015. That adds up to an astounding 658 million vacation days.

However, getting away from work can be important to recharging a person's energy, reducing their stress and boosting creative ideas. In a 2016 study of 94 women, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco and Harvard University discovered that taking vacation for a week can bring about genetic changes that actually reduce stress and boost the immune system for up to 30 days. (The study looked at the effect of vacation on 20,000 genes that control stress and the immune system.)

“It's intuitive that taking a vacation reduces biological processes related to stress," study author Dr. Elissa Epel said in a press release, "but it was still impressive to see the large changes in gene expression from being away from the busy pace of life."

Taking vacations can be more than traveling to a fancy distant destination with family or friends. There actually is a science to doing it well.

1. Make a plan before taking a vacation.

The act of actually doing extensive planning can boost a person's happiness even before the vacation starts, according to research commissioned by travel accommodations site Booking.com.

Trying to do it all on vacation may not be very relaxing. When taking vacation, setting constraints can be beneficial.

Of 17,157 international respondents in September and October 2016, 80 percent revealed that they found happiness by researching places and looking at pictures of their destination. Sixty-one percent said that they liked reading reviews of accommodations they had just booked.

2. Go easy on your trip.

There is a famous 1969 movie called If It's Tuesday, It Must be Belgium where travelers go to a different city by bus every day for 18 days. With all of their constant travel, they have a hard time remembering what they did on any given day and where they are.

Trying to do it all on vacation may not be very relaxing. When taking vacation, setting constraints can be beneficial. Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, says that people who have too many choices will feel overwhelmed and unhappy. In this situation, the level of certainty people have about their choice decreases and the anticipation that they will regret their choice increases.

3. Break your normal patterns when taking a vacation.

Jon Levy, author of The 2 AM Principle: Discover The Science of Adventure, says that when taking a vacation, it's important to break the routine of what a person usually does so they can move outside their comfort zone.

On my annual vacations, I never check email or social media and I do not go on the internet. It forces me to disconnect and actually talk to the people I am taking vacation with. It also allows me to have quieter periods to think instead of rushing from one interruption to the next. These are typically when I come up with my most creative ideas.

4. Travel somewhere where you'll see a lot of the color blue.

2016 study from authors at Michigan State University, University of Canterbury and University of Otago of 445 Wellington, New Zealand adults shows that being near a location where a person can see a lot of blue spaces—like a body of water—will lead to lower levels of “psychological distress."

According to co-author Amber Pearson, the brain is better at processing natural backgrounds. "[It] reduces sensory stimuli and promotes mental relaxation," she says in an interview with Lonely Planet

5. End on a good note.

"Recency bias"—when people have the tendency to only remember the most recent results—can also influence how vacations are remembered. This means that if a person ends the vacation on a bad note, they will remember the entire experience negatively. Alternately, if they end on a positive note, even if there was negative on the vacation, they will the remember entire trip as a fantastic time.

With that in mind, it may be best to leave the part of the vacation that will be most amazing to the end and not put it at the beginning.

How do you take a great vacation?

Read more articles on work-life balance.

Photo: Getty Images