As Memorial Day weekend slips into the rear-view mirror, we set our sights on summertime. Often that includes a camping trip or vacation away from home. When it comes to travel, there’s a bit of data supporting how to do summertime right. The short version: plan a vacation today. Stop whatever you’re doing, take a Magic marker to the calendar and block off some time for your family. Trust me, it may make you happy. Right now.

Being happy, chasing happy, and achieving/experiencing happiness is often a motivator (or an excuse) for the decisions we make. Despite the ubiquitous quest for happiness, it eludes many of us. When reading about happiness, we often hear about mindfulness, the focus on the present and doing our best to live in the moment in which we live. It seems that if we just stopped planning and thinking about the future or worrying with regret about the past, we’d find ourselves entirely aware and entirely much happier. When it comes to summer vacations, the data is different.

A 2010 Dutch study found that planning for the vacation, not the vacation itself, makes you happy. We really must focus on anticipation (vacation planning) if we’re going to get the best out of our trips and travels! Positive effects of vacations don’t last long. Previous work finds that those of us who suffer from burnout return to our pre-vacation levels of stress and overwhelm just 3 to 4 weeks after the vacation ends. Therefore the Dutch study can guide us in really making the most of our limited time away…

  • Researchers surveyed 1530 people about their vacation planning, length of stay, holiday stress, frequency of travel, health status, and their personality type (extraversion). They used happiness scales. They sought to determine which part of a vacation really makes us happy.
  • Pre-trip happiness was notably different between groups while post-trip happiness was not. There was a statistically significant difference between vacationers versus those staying home prior to the trip. However, after the trip the significant differences in happiness scores between the groups faded away.
  • The data from the study support the notion that multiple short trips in a summer (or year) provide more happiness than one long trip because of the pre-trip anticipation boost of happiness. Vacations that lasted two weeks seemed to provide “very relaxed” trips more often than short ones. Although in general, the effects of longer vacations don’t tend to persist or differ once we return to work. As we all know, the email inbox can overwhelm us once we return no matter how long we’re away.

Note to self: planning for a long weekend (or many long weekend journeys) may make you just as happy as planning for a 2 week trip to the beach.

People derive more happiness from two or more short breaks spread throughout the year, than from having just a single longer holiday once a year.

So this really is about the moment–the moment before the trip. Although travel with our children is rigorous (I like to call travel with infants and toddlers “trips” not “vacation”) the goal isn’t only happiness of course. Travel with children is about memories, explorations, wandering, protected family time, and cultural exposure, too. Planning the trip turns out to be an exquisitely important part.

Go get that permanent marker, block off some time. To boost our levels of delight, it makes sense to plan far in advance with our children. Start a countdown today. We’ll get more and more out of that pre-trip mood boost the more lead time we have. Even if only a single day trip, the anticipation may really pay off.