The Real Reason Traveling Makes You Happy

September 30, 2016

Saying I caught the travel bug several years ago would be an understatement. I discovered a joy in traveling I didn’t know I had before. Typically an anxious and tightly wound person, I feel spontaneous and free when I travel. My anxiety vanishes (for the most part) and I truly enjoy myself. I make sacrifices where I can if it means I’ll have more money and time to travel. Nothing gives me quite as much joy as trying new foods in exotic places; hiking a new, difficult trail; and planning the perfect week-long getaway.

The key word in the last sentence is planning—because we know traveling makes us happy, but research has actually shown the planning portion of our vacations gives us more joy than the actual trip itself or the time following the trip. In fact, researchers found, “the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.”

I can attest to this. Several years ago, I took a trip to Aruba, and though I certainly enjoyed the trip itself, I found myself most excited while planning. I would sit at my computer to search “best seafood in Aruba” and have visions of myself eating the best scallops I’d ever tasted by crystal-clear water in perfect, 80-degree weather. I wouldn’t say the trip itself didn’t stack up, but we tend to create the ideal version of things in our minds. And it stirs up excitement.

I’ve learned that while planning for a trip can bring me a lot of pleasure, going with the flow can, too. Here are some planning tips so you can find the perfect balance and get the most out of your next vacation—before, during and after:

Related: The 10 Most Revitalizing Vacations You Can Take

1. Relish the unexpected.

I’m the epitome of a planner—my underlying anxiety fuels my obsessive list-making and color-coordinated calendar. So naturally, I tend to overschedule and over plan when I travel. More recently, I’ve learned how nice it can be to explore a new city for the day without any plans at all. You can discover places you might not find on Yelp and uncover a city’s true culture.

2. Relax, relax, relax.

The same research study I mentioned earlier discovered that the level of happiness people experienced post-vacation depended on how much they relaxed during their time away. There were no elevated emotions post-trip if the traveler described their trip as “neutral,” “stressful” or even “relaxing.” Those who said the trip was “very relaxing” reaped the most post-vacation joy. Even if you’re in an exciting new city like Rome or Bangkok, remember to unwind every so often.

3. Do some (food) research.

There’s nothing worse than being in a brand new city and spending an hour scrolling through Yelp on your phone for a dinner spot. Although too much planning can stress you out, a little bit can be good. Make a few dinner reservations or find a few places you want to try ahead of time so you don’t waste time sitting in your hotel room on the phone.

4. Go on a few small trips per year instead of one big one.

Several studies have shown the length of a trip doesn’t really matter in terms of happiness gained; longer trips aren’t necessarily better. That, combined with the fact that we get the most joy from the planning portion of traveling, means aiming for two or three small trips per year might actually be more beneficial.

5. Put the camera down.

Don’t get me wrong—I love taking photos. I never go on a trip without my DSLR camera draped around my neck. But I’ve learned the benefit of leaving the camera at home every so often. On a trip to Spain several years back, I took photos constantly. Although I love having them as memories, I now see there are moments when I didn’t need to snap a photo. I don’t need a picture of my seafood paella or my feet in the sand.

6. Be somewhat organized.

I’m an extremely organized person, so for me, touting the benefits of being organized is par for the course. But for the less-organized people out there, a little extra planning upfront can mean the difference between a mediocre, expensive meal (such as the time I paid $55 for five prawns in Spain) and a secret gem (i.e. the Hawaii food truck with a cult-like following that’s just $10 for a heaping plate of shrimp). Do some research beforehand on restaurants, sightseeing and shopping.

7. Pack wisely.

Most of us can only dream of being as adept at packing as this woman. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t small things you can do to pack smarter. Try bringing lightweight fabrics that are easy to layer, as well as versatile shoes—hiking shoes that double as athletic shoes, wedges that can work both for your night out and during the day. There’s nothing worse than lugging 50 pounds of luggage around a brand new city searching for your hotel.

8. Keep your spirits high once it’s back to real life.

One trick I’ve found is having an extra day or two at home to relax before going back to work. Having one day to complete all of your errands before returning to work can help eliminate unneeded stress

Related: A Workaholic’s Guide to Relaxing on Vacation

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