What’s the worst part of going on vacation?

According to some psychologists, it might be the part when you’re actually on vacation.

A slew of recent studies have found that people are less happy while vacationing than they are while planning and remembering their trips. A study from 1997 analyzed survey results from people who went on several different trips – including a vacation to Europe and a three-week bicycle trip in California – and found that “the respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it.” Drake Bennett of Boston.com has more:

Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

A more recent study from the Netherlands found that people reported being in better moods just before their vacations than at any other point.

On reflection, these studies (and the many others like them) seem to comport with our general experiences. As travelers, we love the feeling of endless possibility that comes with planning a trip. We like to imagine that our moods, attitudes, and hobbies will be completely different in, say, Barbados than at home in Akron, Ohio. Alain de Botton addressed this familiar feeling in his 2002 book The Art of Travel:

…I had never tried to stare at a picture of Barbados for any length of time. Had I laid one on a table and forced myself to look at it exclusively for twenty-five minutes, my mind and body would naturally have migrated towards a range of extrinsic concerns, and I might thereby have gained a more accurate sense of how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind.

Botton continues, with what is perhaps my favorite passage from the book:

We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn… that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy nor condemn us to misery.

Of course, when our trip abroad has come to an end, we return home and tell our friends of the wonderful, life-altering experiences we’ve just had. We forget all about the taxi driver who ripped us off, the time we got food poisoning, and the dingy hotels where we stayed. Because we only remember the best parts of our trip – wonderful food, friendly locals, beautiful scenery – we perhaps don’t have an entirely accurate recollection of what we’ve just experienced.

But so what if we remember our vacation as better than it actually was? We should be so lucky in our normal, workaday lives to forget the minor slights and inconveniences and remember the highlights. When the trip is over, after all, memories are all we’ve got.

For more, check out Drake Bennett’s recent article “The best vacation ever.”