THE BLOG
03/26/2014 08:06 am ET | Updated May 26, 2014

Do Vacations Make Us Happier? The Answer: It Depends.

I thought it was simple: Vacations are fun. After all, taking time off work and time away gives us the opportunity to make memories, share experiences with our family and friends and see the world. Right? But research doesn't hold that line of thinking up. Not every vacation is equal. And theory - the idea that vacations should increase happiness - doesn't always translate to reality.

In December 2013, I partnered with happiness researcher Michelle Gielan from the Institute of Applied Positive Research and Monograms to conduct a study based upon a 34-item survey of 414 travelers. From this survey, a clearer picture has emerged about the connection between travel and happiness, and the effect of travel upon stress and energy.

We found a statistically significant and strong correlation between happiness and stress on a negative trip (r= -.68). We also found a significant correlation between happiness on the trip and energy at work after a stressful trip (r=-.41).

In other words, most of the happiness gleaned from vacation is dependent upon the stress level of the vacation. Poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away. The less the stress, the more likely you will experience a positive benefit from the time off. A positive, well-managed vacation can make you happier and less stressed, and you can return with more energy at work and with more meaning in your life.

Positive vacations have a significant effect upon energy and stress. In our study, 94 percent had as much or more energy after coming back after a good trip. In fact, on low-stress trips, 55 percent returned to work with even higher levels of energy than before the trip. Here are some key tips to help you create positive vacation.

  • Focus on the details. In our study, 74 percent find the most stressful aspect of travel to be figuring out the details: travel uncertainty, transportation, wasting time figure things out on the trip, and being unfamiliar with the location. Instead of suffering, ask for help. Find a good travel agent to plan some of this for you.
  • Plan ahead. If you want a happy vacation, check spontaneity at the door. Our new research revealed that the best - and happiest - vacations for 90 percent of people were those planned more than one month in advance. Planning ahead reduces stress and increases the opportunity to anticipate the getaway. For the negative trips, 28 percent were still figuring out details at the last minute or even on the trip itself. The earlier you plan, the better.
  • Go far away. An average vacation creates no positive effect on happiness or stress. But 85 percent (of travelers' best trips over the past five years were in locations outside their home country. This reconfirms the Twitter study findings that the happiness level of users increased the further the post was geotagged from the user's home. And 94% found traveling during the vacation to be more meaningful than a "staycation."
  • Meet with someone knowledgeable at the location. The biggest stressors on the trip were managing travel details, not feeling safe, and lack of knowledge of the location. On the best trips, 77 percent knew and met with a local host or had a knowledgeable friend, which was 35 percent more than on the worst trips. If you don't know someone personally, companies like Monograms specialize in providing travelers with a local host to ensure that they have social support and local knowledge on the trip to lower stress.

Traveling the world can be an amazing - and even better - a happy experience. You just have to do it the right way. Create a positive vacation so you can return recharged, less stressed, and happier. For more information on this study or tips for increasing happiness on vacation, visit www.travelinghappy.com.

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