Holiday healing: how to get the most from our precious breaks
Psychological benefits of spending time and money on experiences outweigh the equivalent spend on material things
Long before the pandemic, the Irish headed off in droves in search of sun, desperate to get away from routine and sometimes each other. This year the urge for a break is stronger than ever. If the UK is anything to go by, the average family is prepared to shell out about two months’ salary on their annual holiday. Is it worth it? It seems so.
There is solid evidence that the psychological benefits of spending time and money on pleasurable, interesting experiences like a holiday far outweigh spending the equivalent time and money on material things, even things that you really want, and are more strongly linked to how enduringly satisfied you are with your life.
A good holiday serves as a recovery break from the wear and tear of ordinary life. It allows you to spend unhurried time with those you love most in the world, and get more in tune with one another. Children, and even teenagers, put a high value on ‘hanging out’ with their parents on holiday, free from the dead weight of the usual routines and duties.
During a holiday, your well-being increases quite rapidly, often just two days into the holiday, peaks around day eight, and then levels off very gradually. This is probably because feelings of pleasure, relaxation, or excitement are more intense and noticeable at the beginning of a holiday, and then, as you settle into a routine, give way to the less intense feelings of contentment and ease.
The health and well-being benefits are highest while on holiday and stay high for about a week afterwards, then gradually fade over the next four weeks. Taking longer holidays does not extend the benefits — most are achieved in a two- or even one-week holiday. That’s why it’s better to divide up holiday time between one main holiday and a number of short breaks rather than take all your holiday time together.
Holidays improve your cardiovascular health, lower the risk of a heart attack, and reduce stress, mental exhaustion and burn-out — especially if you work in a high-pressure job. One study found a significant relationship between the number of people on holiday in a country at any one time and a decline in the use of anti-depressants. What about workaholics, perfectionists and chronic worriers? They experience the same or ever greater benefits while they are on holiday, but, unless they change their habits, there is a sudden and greater drop in their well-being when they return.
So how can you maximise the benefits of holidays? Spend time and effort in planning your holiday. In your 20s, last-minute adventures can work because you put a high value on excitement and immediate pleasures and generally have a high tolerance of discomfort. But at a certain point, most people seek out more reliable pleasures. The more relaxing you find the holiday, the more pleasurable the routines you establish, and the more control you have over how you spend your time, the bigger the benefits.
Try to find the best fit between what you need and the type of holiday you are planning. Sometimes you want a holiday that is familiar and makes you feel secure. Other times, you are looking for novelty, excitement, surprise. The best holidays offer both elements. What really counts is whether the holiday helps you to drop down a few gears and switch off from your usual preoccupations, worries, and self-doubt. This frees up precious mental space, allowing you to get a new perspective on yourself and how you are living your life.
Extend the benefits of the holiday by anticipating the pleasures ahead. The benefits of a holiday kick in before it actually starts. In fact, the anticipation of the pleasures ahead, or what psychologists call ‘pre-living’, is as enjoyable, and sometimes more so, than the actual experience of being on holiday.
Give some thought to the possible downsides when planning a particular holiday. One of the cognitive biases wired into the human brain is the tendency not to think of the negatives when we are planning things. We imagine the fabulous countryside but forget about the mosquitoes and horseflies, relish the exotic location but forget about the stress of the airports and jet-lag. So at the very least, mitigate the risk by being prepared and find out as much as you can about where you are planning to stay.
Reduce the ‘week-before-the-holiday’ stress. Well-being tends to decrease in the week before a holiday, especially in women who most often plan and prepare for family holidays. This so-called ‘leisure sickness’ includes upset stomach, headaches, raised blood pressure, poor sleep, bad mood, and lack of energy and may be caused by the sudden deprivation of corticosteroids or stress hormones — like changing from fourth to first gear suddenly.
Try to reduce that stress by having a longer lead-in time to the holiday. Resist the urge to completely clear your desk, or embark on frenzied house cleaning. At the very least, take some exercise on the evening of your last day at work to help dissipate stress hormones.
Get off the grid while on holidays. Before you go, set an ‘out of office’ email starting, if possible, the day before you go and ending the day after you return.
While on holiday, try to disconnect from work phones, laptops, and the internet and resist the temptation to check your email, or at the very least, set a strict limit on how long you spend doing that. Try to limit the use of your personal phone to looking up routes or opening times, booking restaurants, or checking in on a family member at home.
If the nature of your work requires you to check in, try to get control over when and how often you do that, what tasks you have to deal with, and the likely start and end time of your involvement.
Switching off is the best antidote to feeling that you are ‘always on, never finished’, which is a big factor in mental exhaustion. But bear in mind that you are not always the best judge of what constitutes ‘essential’, so talk it through with someone who cares about you.
Remember the ‘Peak-End Rule’. We rate the positive or negative quality of any experience, including a holiday, on two data points: The ‘peak’ experience — the moment when your feelings were most intense — and the ‘end’ of the experience.
Sometimes the most positive experiences happen spontaneously, but rarely if you are not relaxed. You have more control over the end experiences. So do everything you can to minimise the stress of leaving, including avoiding ‘red-button’ occasions that are reliably guaranteed to increase your own or somebody else’s stress levels.
Try to ease back into your work and domestic routine. If possible, try to return midweek to lessen the stress of the transition back to work.
Savour the memory of the holiday: Recalling holiday pleasures brings significant benefits, even if it’s not very accurate. We tend to remember holidays as happier than they actually were because, over time, the intensity of emotion, especially negative emotion, fades. As we reconstruct our memories, even the awful hotel, the sunburn and the mosquitoes don’t seem so bad. As a consequence, even holidays that at the time seemed a disaster tend to be remembered more fondly. As we tell and retell the story of what went wrong, it somehow doesn’t seem so bad, we can even see some humour in it, and we are reminded once again just how resourceful we were. Win-win.
Originally published in the Sunday Independent
Posted: 23 May 2021