Travel is a beautiful escape from reality. There is no finer way to remove oneself from life’s dirty, mundane realities than to plan a trip. Hate your job? Have a broken heart? Bored with your lot in life? Step right up and book a ticket to just about anywhere. The trip might change your life – or maybe it won’t. The travel industry would like you to believe that a vacation can make you happier. But coming home can be a bitch.
Travel represents freedom, a taste of the good life. It’s easy to visit a beautiful place and think, “I want to live here.” Seize the temptation to bottle up that little whiff of travel euphoria and make it last by not going home. Removing oneself from the daily routine inspires reflection, and travelers often make major life decisions on or right after a trip. But when they return from a trip, especially a very good one, they aren’t quite in a rational frame of mind.As many of us settle back in to work after Memorial Day weekend trips, it’s a good time to ask the question: did your escape produce any lasting happiness bump, or did the good vibes disappear the moment you arrived home to a pile of bills and dirty laundry? I’ve never been very good at going home and according to Dr. Jeroen Nawijn, a lecturer at NHTV Breda University in the Netherlands who studies the correlation between holidays and happiness, I’m not alone.
Dr. Nawijn has written a number of scholarly articles on this topic (some of them available by searching under Nawijn J on Google Scholar) including “The Holiday Happiness Curve,” “Happiness through Vacationing: Just a Temporary Boost or Long-Term Benefits?” and “How Do We Feel on Vacation?” to name just a few. Dr. Nawijn’s research indicates that travelers are a bit happier than non-travelers over all, but the impact of a vacation on happiness is small and it tends to disappear when people return home. The act of planning a trip makes people happy, as does the trip itself, but the happiness bump doesn’t last.
I contacted Dr. Nawijn to ask him about this dynamic and he wrote that “autonomy, or a sense of freedom” is a major reason why people feel happy on a trip and the fact that this autonomy disappears when they return home is why the bump doesn’t last. I asked him what advice he had for travelers coping with post-vacation blues and he replied, “Expect to feel great on vacation and cherish the memories once you’re home. These memories form the basis for anticipating the next trip and offer brief moments of elevated happiness.”
Based upon his research, it would be logical to conclude that if the anticipation of a trip is almost as good as the holiday itself, that one should plan several short trips rather than one big one. But I’m not sure I subscribe to that theory. Dr. Nawijn’s research and my own experience dictates that near the end of a great trip, a traveler begins to dread going home. On a trip of a week or two, you have plenty of time to let go, but on a three- or four-day escape, the gloomy prospect of returning home hits you all too soon.
Researchers from the University of Vermont seemed to underscore that point in an April study that examined some four million tweets from 2011 to study the correlation between happiness and distance from home. They concluded that the further from home someone is, the happier they are.
Expedia conducted a far less scientific online study about vacations and happiness earlier this month and, not surprisingly, their conclusions were rosier than Dr. Nawijn’s findings. Expedia reports that travelers are happier, hornier and like their jobs more than people who stay home. According to their study, 47 percent of people who went on vacations last year like their jobs while 71 percent of those who haven’t vacationed in five years don’t. And 61 percent of those who vacation annually are satisfied with life. But I would have liked to see them ask this question: are you happier when you return from a trip compared to before?
Yet another travel and happiness survey, released in March, concluded that 83 percent of us consider travel an important component to happiness. I concur that for restless souls, like me, staying home is a surefire recipe for depression.
There are ways to cope with the inevitable come down of returning home. Give yourself at least a day after a trip before you have to return to work. Document your trip in writing, and take photos and videos you can enjoy later on. Collect business cards and other little reminders of places that will bring back good memories. And plan outings in your hometown that will make you feel like you are back on the road. But I’ve found that there is only one sure method to cope with post-holiday blues: start planning your next trip.