‘A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first
appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.’
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
The torrent of travel TV shows, newspaper supplements and
guidebooks says it all. In life’s layers of daily drudgery, holidays provide
the elusive seams of golden experience – the chance to forge cherished
memories, to live freely, unshackled from the constraints of work and stress.
Mere fantasy perhaps, but intuition tells us that these escapes from the
quotidian grind must do us good, that a change of scene surely revitalises.
What does psychology have to say? Do we actually enjoy our holidays once we get
around to them? Are they beneficial? Strap yourself in for a tour of the field
and some surprising answers.
Are holidays fun?
If you approach people who are holidaying and ask them what
kind of mood they are in, it’s likely you’ll get a positive answer. At least
that’s what tourism scholar Jeroen Nawijn based at NHTV Breda University of
Applied Sciences found when he interviewed hundreds of international tourists
in the Netherlands over a 19-day period in the spring of 2008, and hundreds
more over 13 days in 2009. Overall, with nearly 96 per cent of the first sample
reporting a positive mood, Nawijn concluded that holiday misery as portrayed by
the media scare stories is a myth. Moreover, holiday happiness levels were
unrelated to people’s age or socio-economic background. ‘Enjoying a holiday
trip is universal,’ says Nawijn. ‘This is not surprising as holidaymaking is a
voluntary activity, for adults anyway. If you don't like to take a vacation,
then don’t. Certainly there are trips that turn into a nightmare, but these are
really exceptions rather than the rule.’
Based on the way that people’s feelings varied according to
the stage of holiday they were at, Nawijn has proposed a ‘holiday happiness
curve’: people in the first 10 per cent of their holiday were generally in lower
mood (what he calls the ‘travel phase’); those between 10 per cent and 80 per
cent into the trip (the ‘core phase’) were in high mood; those at the period
between 80 to 90 per cent of the trip were in lower mood (a ‘decline phase’);
and finally, those in the final tenth of the holiday once again reported higher
mood (a ‘rejuvenation phase’). Nawijn believes this last phase is where people
have left behind the worries of packing and the frustration of the trip coming
to an end. ‘They are able to enjoy their trip again,’ he says, ‘and possibly
also look forward to coming home.’
Surprisingly perhaps, the type of holiday, and the
activities engaged in that day, were not related to people’s self-reported
happiness levels. Maybe most of us have a good sense of the kind of holidays we
enjoy and stick to those? Factors that were associated with self-reported
happiness were weather (no surprises there), stress levels, attitude towards
one’s companions, and length of stay: people on mid-length holidays of between
three to six days tended to report more positive mood than those on shorter or
longer trips. ‘Possibly a two- to six-day holiday trip is long enough to enjoy
(unlike a two-day trip),’ Nawijn surmised, ‘but short enough to minimise
arguments with partner, family or friends.’
When it comes to the enjoyment of much longer holidays, say
from two months to a year, the research simply hasn’t been done. ‘If someone
takes such a long journey, one can only speculate as to the reasons why,’ says
Nawijn. ‘Perhaps it’s a phase of life, leaving school, before entering college,
or perhaps a midlife crisis or really a true desire to travel and discover. Who
knows? But it would certainly be interesting to study the effect of these
different motivations for lengthy travels on one’s sense of well-being.’
The ‘rosy-view effect’
So far the results seem promising enough, but the picture
gets a little more complicated thanks to a curious phenomenon – ‘the rosy-view
effect’ – documented in the late nineties by Terence Mitchell at the University
of Washington and his colleagues. Based on surveys of three groups of
participants before, during and after a 12-day tour of Europe, a five-day
Thanksgiving vacation and a three-week bicycle trip across California, the
researchers concluded that people generally anticipate and recall enjoying
holidays far more than they really do enjoy them at the time (although,
consistent with Nawijn’s research, the participants’ in-the-moment experiences
were generally positive). The principal reason for the mismatch, based on
participants’ diary records, seemed to be that the holiday experiences were
peppered with let-downs, quickly forgotten on return. Another factor was minor
distractions, the potholes of daily existence, which detracted from enjoyment
during the holiday, but which were also quickly forgotten when reminiscing.
The rosy-view effect poses a quasi-philosophical problem –
so long as we expect to enjoy our holidays and we recall an inflated enjoyment
of them once we get back, does it matter what the experience was really like?
In at least one practical sense, likely to be of particular interest to the
travel industry, it seems it’s our memories that matter more than our true
In 2003 Derrick Wirtz and his colleagues at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gauged the expected, actual and remembered
enjoyment of 41 students taking their spring break, including trips to Florida,
Europe and Kentucky. Consistent with the rosy-view effect, the students
anticipated and recalled experiencing more positive emotions than they actually
reported during their holiday. Contrary to the rosy-view effect, a similar
pattern was also found for negative emotions, prompting the researchers to
speculate that maybe it’s the intensity of emotion, good and bad, that’s
overestimated before and after a holiday. Crucially, when Wirtz’s team asked
the students whether they planned to go on the same holiday again, it was their
remembered affective experience, rather than their actual experience, that predicted
their stated decision.
This finding is all the more consequential in light of a
later paper by Elizabeth Loftus, the University of California-Irvine doyenne of
false memory research, in which she demonstrated the ease with which people’s
holiday memories could be distorted. Together with her colleagues, Kathryn
Braun-LaTour and Melissa Grinley, Loftus had half of 129 participants look at a
Disneyland picture advert featuring the Warner Bros character Bugs Bunny, while
the others saw a standard Disneyland ad. The participants, all of whom had
themselves been to Disneyland, then read other people’s reminiscences about a
holiday to the theme park. These were written in a style you might expect to
find on an internet travel site, and critically, the same participants who saw
the Bugs version of the advert read a reminiscence in which the narrator
recalled meeting Bugs Bunny, among other characters, at Disneyland (an
impossibility given Bugs Bunny’s Warner Bros origins).
The disconcerting finding is that when asked to recall their
own Disneyland trip, the participants exposed to the misleading ad and
narrative were significantly more likely (36 per cent vs. 8.7 per cent) to say
erroneously that they too had met Bugs Bunny when they went to Disneyland. Replace
the Bugs Bunny trick with misleading references about food or facilities on
internet review sites and the profound implications of this study begin to
The lessons for the travel industry, Loftus and her team
concluded, ‘…are huge. The most precious after-effect of a tourist’s experience
is his or her memories, and through this and other research we now know that
these are not sacrosanct. They can be distorted from the use of marketing,
competition, Listservs, TV programs, etc.’
‘These sorts of manipulations of our autobiography are
probably routinely occurring in real life,’ says Loftus, ‘and we’re not even
aware that they have influenced us. We may have to get used to the idea that
some of our memories may not really be our own.’
One final point in relation to holiday memories: if they
play such an important role in our holiday-based feelings and decisions, then
perhaps some lessons could be learned from the broader literature on hedonic
experiences involving shorter events? In particular, research by Nobel winner
Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues identified something called ‘the peak-end
rule’ – that is, people’s overall memories of an experience showed a strong
association with the average of the peak level of emotional feeling and the final
level of emotion at the end of the experience. For example, a 1996 study found
patients’ recall of colonoscopy was predicted by the peak-end rule rather than
by the duration of the procedure. Applying this rule to our holidays would
suggest we need to try to obtain as high a peak of enjoyment as we can, and to
end on a high note. The rest might not matter so much.
Simon Kemp and his colleagues at the University of
Canterbury in New Zealand investigated this very issue in a 2008 paper
involving 49 holidaying participants who were surveyed before, every day
during, and after their trip. The main finding was that although holiday
duration didn’t make a difference to recalled happiness, the peak-end rule
wasn’t that accurate either. Instead, overall recalled happiness on holiday was
most strongly associated with participants’ happiness during their most
memorable or unusual 24-hour period of the holiday.
‘One implication’, says Kemp, ‘is that if you want to have a
memorable holiday then it helps to include one experience that is likely to be
memorable – and much better if it is memorably good rather than memorably bad!
Another is that the length of the holiday probably doesn’t matter too much for
how you think about it afterwards – although it might from the point of view of relaxation.’
Kemp’s team further predicted that what constitutes the most
memorable or unusual period of the holiday could be prone to change as time
passes, meaning that the factors affecting our recalled happiness may well
change from one week to the next. ‘More important,’ Kemp says, ‘they are likely
to vary with what is otherwise occupying your mind at the time you are
Are holidays beneficial?
Aside from the hoped-for pleasures they bring whilst we’re
on them and the treasured memories they provide afterwards, many of us go on
holidays in the belief that the experience will do us good, in terms of our
health and well-being. Our employers too no doubt expect us to return
revitalised and ready to tackle our work with renewed vigour.
There’s certainly some evidence that overseas travel can
spur creativity. For example, William Maddux at INSEAD and Adam Galinsky at the
Kellogg School of Management found that students who’d spent more time abroad
were more likely to solve a creativity problem. Also, an epidemiological study
published in 2000 involving thousands of men at risk of heart problems found
that the more holidays they took, the more likely they were to survive the
study’s nine-year follow-up period. ‘Vacations may not only be enjoyable but
also health promoting,’ stated Brooks Gump and Karen Matthews at the University
of Pittsburgh (findings like this should be a worry to US workers who have no
statutory holiday entitlement – their average number of paid days leave is
about 10. In contrast, full-time European workers are guaranteed at least 20
days paid leave a year).
These observations on creativity and longevity aside,
quality research in the field of occupational psychology looking at the
benefits of holidays is surprisingly thin on the ground. When Jessica de Bloom
at Radboud University, Nijmegen and her colleagues performed a meta-analysis of
the topic in 2009 they identified just seven suitable papers in the literature.
Broadly speaking they were looking for studies that involved healthy
participants and provided a pre- to post-comparison of well-being and other
Between them, these seven studies featured hundreds of
participants in a variety of different occupations. The main message was that going
on holiday had a small but significant positive effect on the workers’
well-being (the effect size was 0.43) when comparing ratings taken just after a
holiday with a few days or weeks before. The disappointing news is how brief
these benefits appeared to be. Two to four weeks after returning, participants
lapsed back to their pre-holiday well-being levels – a phenomenon that
researchers in the field call the ‘fade out effect’.
‘I think that the fade out effect is a natural phenomenon
whereby people feel the same way if they are in the same environment,’ says de
Bloom. ‘After returning home, vacationers are back at the normal work
environment and accordingly also feel as they normally feel during working
times: not bad, but not as positive as during times of more control, freedom
and new experiences, i.e. the situation on holiday.’
Beyond this main finding, de Bloom and her team frowned
collectively at how little we know about the psychological effects of holidays.
The potentially contrasting effects of different holiday types and activities
remains unknown and there were even too few studies in the meta-analysis to
check the effect of different holiday lengths. A reliance on self-report also
means no research group has yet looked objectively at actual work performance
to see if this improves after a holiday.
‘We are currently busy investigating important issues
regarding the effect of different types and durations of holidays and the role
of vacation activities and experiences,’ de Bloom says. ‘The answer to these
questions will hopefully lead to a number of practical implications that can
help people to plan their vacations in order to achieve maximal recovery,
experience pleasure of looking forward to a vacation, savour the experience of
a vacation and prolong its positive effects.’
As well as being limited in scope, existing studies in the
field are also scuppered by a methodological problem – the risk that observed
effects presumed to be caused by the holiday experience could in fact be mere
side-effects. Consider how the rush to meet deadlines before going away could
adversely affect people’s well-being pre-holiday. In a pre- versus post-holiday
design this would therefore inflate the apparent benefit of a holiday.
Contrarily, measures taken on return could be skewed by the stress of coming
back to a pile of work: this could have the effect of concealing true benefits
garnered from having a vacation.
De Bloom and her colleagues made a start attempting to
address this problem in a study of their own conducted last year, involving 96
Dutch workers employed in a range of different industries from IT to
healthcare. A first baseline measure of well-being was taken two weeks before
the participants’ winter sports holiday (average length was nine days), hopefully
well before any potential adverse effects of rushing to get away. Also,
measures were taken during the holiday using specially prepared mobile phones,
and again once a week for several weeks on return, so that a more detailed
picture of the fade out effect could be observed.
The good news is the in-holiday measures once again revealed
evidence of a benefit – the workers felt in a better mood compared with their
pre-holiday baseline, more energised and healthier. The bad news was that these
benefits were all eradicated during the very first week back at work. The one
anomaly in this regard was fatigue – the participants showed no benefits on
this measure during their trips, perhaps because of the active nature of the
holiday, but they did show a reduction in fatigue during their first week home.
Disappointingly, this benefit was gone within two weeks.
Are they worth it?
The rapid fading out of holiday benefits may be a little
demoralising, but fortunately some new research is beginning to provide clues
for how to extend your post-holiday glow. For a 2006 paper, Charlotte Fritz at
the Technical University of Braunschweig and Sabine Sonnentag at the University
of Konstanz surveyed hundreds of non-academic university employees before,
during and after a holiday. Participants generally reported feeling healthier
after the holiday and experiencing work tasks as less effortful. As usual, this
benefit faded quickly, but it was prolonged for those who didn’t face an
accumulation of work on their return. So if you can find a way to avoid your
work mounting up whilst your away, this could help prolong the benefits of a
break. Avoiding negative thoughts about work while away was also associated
with better outcomes post-holiday.
Another paper published just this year by Jana Kühnel and
Sabine Sonnentag involved a survey of 131 German teachers before and three
times after they took a two-week Easter vacation. Once again, a holiday benefit
was found, in terms of reduced emotional exhaustion and increased work engagement,
and yet again this was short-lived, fading out entirely within one month.
Crucially, though, it faded out more slowly for teachers who used spare time in
the evenings and weekends post-holiday to relax. ‘Why is relaxation important?’
Sonnentag asks. ‘Relaxation should help to reduce the strains accumulated
during the working days.’ That one nugget is the good news, the bad news is
that continuing a relaxation regimen after a holiday only delayed the
inevitable. The fade out was slowed down for the first two weeks only. Findings
like this beg the question – are holidays worth all the hassle and expense? Is
it worth digging for those seams of gold?
Sonnentag believes holidays are definitely worth it.
‘Although the beneficial effects fade out quickly, not having any
holidays/vacations would probably be very problematic because the strain would
accumulate over time,’ she says. De Bloom agrees emphatically: ‘Vacations give
people the opportunity to (re)connect to family, partner and friends,’ she
says. ‘They help us to “refill our batteries”, remain productive and perform on
high levels. The fact that the after-effects are short-lived only emphasises
that we should go on a vacation more frequently in order to keep our levels of
health and well-being high.’ Who could possibly disagree with that?
Box 1: The good times
What constitutes the good times on holiday – those moments
you wish you could bottle up and savour for ever? Malene Gram at Aalborg
University in Denmark addressed this question in the context of family
holidays. She interviewed 26 German and Danish families for a paper published
in 2005, finding that the answer depended to a large extent on whether you ask
children or parents.
For kids, it was moments of activity and absorption, such as
roller-coaster rides, and sensory experiences, such as the leather-like feel of
a giraffe’s tongue, that were most cherished. For parents, by contrast,
relaxation was vital, as was knowing that their children were having a good
time. Some parents also recalled fond memories of rediscovering their own inner
Moments of togetherness were particularly savoured – a
factor that clashed somewhat with the adults’ need for quiet periods of
relaxation away from their kids. Ice-cream was a recurring theme: when families
sat down together to enjoy an ice-cream (some of them reported doing this
several times a day) this seemed to act as a bonding activity and also provided
a rich sensory memory for the children. ‘The ice-cream situation seems to be a
very harmonic moment,’ Gram wrote.
‘Wow!’ situations were also mentioned – one six-year-old boy
recalled the time that a killer whale splashed water, soaking the audience. A
mother reminisced fondly about the time on a ferry ride when some passengers
erupted into song, playing their musical instruments spontaneously.
How do parents gauge the success of a holiday? One mother
said that on the way back, if the kids ‘fall asleep in the car right away, then
we know it has been good’.
For parents hoping to foster some golden moments on holiday,
Gram says it’s important to be realistic about how we spend time together:
‘Enjoy intense moments of togetherness,’ she advises, ‘but make sure to give
every family member time and space to be themselves and do whatever is
important in the construction of their holiday, too.’
Box 2: The bad times
People long for the rhythmic sound of lazy waves, the
squidge of warm sand between their toes (or substitute your own holiday
fantasy). Yet all too often, having reached their destination, illness strikes:
lethargy, a sore throat perhaps, or a thumping pain in the temples.
Psychologists call this ‘leisure sickness’.
Most of what we know about this concept is anecdotal, but a
2002 pilot study by Ad Vingerhoets and his colleagues at Tilburg University
suggested leisure sickness is fairly common – of 1128 men and women surveyed,
around 3 to 4 per cent said they suffered from illnesses more on holidays and
at weekends than when at work. Just what causes leisure sickness is largely
speculative at the moment. In a 2007 commentary, Guus Van Heck and Vingerhoets
outlined various possible causes including: changes to lifestyle (many people
drink more/less coffee or alcohol on holiday than at home; sleep patterns may
also be different); a change of focus (without the distraction of work, people
may become more aware of their bodily states); and stress-related processes
(the body may balance out the effects of chronic stress at work, and once that
source of stress is removed suddenly, the immune system is left out of kilter).
Some people may be more prone to leisure sickness than others. The 2002 pilot
study suggested that people who are particularly committed to their work, who
are perfectionists and who find it difficult to relax, may be especially at
risk. Highly extravert characters may also suffer from a loss of stimulation
and challenge that can manifest as boredom-induced illness.
Given the established benefits of an illness-free holiday,
Vingerhoets says managers and doctors should take leisure sickness more
seriously and provide those who suffer from it with useful guidelines. ‘Perhaps
a work-out demarcating and emphasising the transition from work to non-work may
be helpful to “unwind” the body and better adjust to a the demand-free state,’
On a related note, although epidemiological research
suggests holidays help reduce the risk of heart problems long-term,
unfortunately for some people with a pre-existing problem, it seems holidays
and holiday travel can be the trigger for a heart attack. Willem Kop (now also
at Tilburg University) and colleagues in a 2003 study found that risk was
greatest during the first two days, car travel was a particular risk, as was
staying in a tent or mobile home rather than a hotel. Traffic jams and
proximity to irritating travel companions were the obvious adverse factors
relevant to these situations. ‘High-risk patients need to be alerted to the
unique physical and mental activities specific to vacation travel that can act
as triggers of acute coronary syndromes during their vacation,’ the researchers
concluded. However, Vingerhoets, a co-author, points out that since most of
these patients were high-risk, ‘it’s very likely that they would also have
developed these heart problems in the home or work setting’.
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