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While the COVID-19 pandemic is still simmering this summer, more than 200 million Americans have made travel plans. For many, this summer will mark their first trip in a long time.
Most people think of vacations as a time to relax and unwind. But there’s an inherent amount of stress that comes with traveling, especially during a pandemic. What does science say about how much vacations actually help to reduce stress? And what can you do to get the most out of yours?
It turns out — and the evidence is crystal clear on this — a main psychological benefit of going on vacation is the anticipation of one. There are many studies that show vacationers see the strongest benefits in both their mental and physical health in the weeks leading up to their vacation.
one study, conducted by researchers in the Netherlands, measured the effects of vacations on happiness. Researchers found the act of planning a vacation yields a much larger boost in happiness — up to eight additional weeks of improved moods in anticipating the vacation. They also found the vacation led to an immediate boost in happiness, but those improvements fade within a few weeks.
It turns out that how you spend your time on vacation is important too. A 2016 study published by the University of Massachusetts Amherst surveyed more than 800 vacationers to determine whether vacations relieve stress or improve life satisfaction. The study identified some attributes of vacations that lead to stress relief. People who perceive they have control over their travel plans are more likely to feel less stressed after a vacation. Mastering a new skill and detaching psychologically from work during vacation also helps to reduce stress levels. The study also found that longer vacations provide more opportunities to achieve these goals, hence yielding greater benefits.
And it may not matter how long the trip lasts. Another study published by Finnish researchers followed nearly 200 people who took winter sports vacations and extended weekend trips. The researchers measured six indicators before, during and after the trips: health status, mood, tension, energy level, fatigue, and satisfaction. People in both groups — those who took weekend trips and longer vacations — reported higher levels of well-being before and during the vacation.
In addition to the benefits before and during vacation, there is some evidence that people experience a psychological benefit from recalling the happiness they experienced on vacation during difficult times. Research on memory tells us these types of positive memories can serve as a psychological resource throughout one’s life. Studies also show that vacationing can build relationships. People are more likely to have more and higher quality conversations with the people with whom they vacation. Vacations serve as a bonding experience, and may also help to put life in perspective and improve meaning — factors that ultimately improve psychological resilience.
The take-home message: That upcoming vacation is actually good for you! The evidence shows you’ll feel happy and excited in the weeks leading up to your trip, you’ll have the opportunity to bond with your travel companions and find meaning in your life, and the memories of your trip will help bolster your spirits during difficult times ahead.