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Are holidays good for us?

Research secrets to vacation happiness.

Many of us invest valuable time, energy and money planning our vacation experiences, organising new travel adventures.

We do this because we instinctively know that going on vacations must be good for us. Research proves this feeling without a doubt. Regular vacations are associated with greater happiness levels, help us perform better at work, help us improve our sleep quality and cushion us against depression.

There is even research that shows that failing to vacation regularly can be a contributing factor to early death. And yet, despite these real and perceived benefits, many of us return home with a feeling that our last vacation was just OK – but not great.

How do we change this? A trip that looks good on paper may not deliver us what we truly need. We worry about tactical issues such as how to find a good flight deal, how to get from A to B, or which destinations to add or subtract from our itinerary. These issues may seem important, but can, in fact, be secondary to a successful vacation. Our psychological state of mind is far more important.

A classic mistake for vacation planners is attempting to maximise value for money by planning trips that have too many components. Perhaps you're planning a trip to Europe, seven cities in 10 days, and you realise it will cost only a little more to add two more destinations to the list. Sounds fine in theory, but hopping from one place to the next hardly gives an opportunity to experience what psychologists call mindfulness – time to take in our new surroundings, time to be present and absorb our travel experiences.

Instead, you should love where you're at – and stay engaged in what's going on around you. You should also do less, enjoy more – don't add stress to your life with a complicated travel plan; you will take in more by doing less.

Together with co-author Rod Cuthbert, I have developed an eBook called Vacation Rules for maximising vacation well-being. The rules are simple, but grounded in science. The book draws directly on research into leisure travel, positive psychology and effects on well-being, health, relationships and work performance. It contains 36 easy-to-follow rules for travellers and we have made them accessible to the general public.

Here are some of my top rules:

Who you go with matters more than where you go. Choose your travel companions wisely. Nothing enhances a trip more than the right companions.

Don't visit champagne destinations on a beer budget. Spending vacation time in a place where everything is too expensive will quickly kill your positive mood.

Shop for meanings, not just things. Shop wisely. Meaningful experiences provide more long-term happiness than physical possessions.

Kindness pays. Perform random acts of kindness for locals and other travellers to boost your positive emotions.

Your guidebook is your friend, not your master. A truly happy vacation is one where you feel in control and see yourself in a positive light. Guidebooks can help with the former, but may get in the way of the latter. Don't let your guidebook completely dictate what you “must see” at your destination.

And be optimistic. Remaining optimistic about your vacation in the face of unexpected glitches, like flight delays, really matters. Optimists live longer and achieve more than pessimists.

These rules are based on the PERMA well-being model developed by psychologist Dr Martin Seligman. PERMA stands for positive emotions (P), engagement (E), relationships (R), meaning (M) and achievement (A). These elements are equally important to our vacation happiness – and there is little evidence that you have to travel far or go on an expensive cruise to get these benefits.
A Cheat Sheet at the back of the book includes key rules under each PERMA well-being element. Check out the Cheat Sheet before your next holiday!

Dr Sebastian Filep is a lecturer in the University of Otago's Department of Tourism. He is also Honorary Research Fellow at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. Dr Filep specialises in tourist behaviour, positive psychology and well-being research. In addition to Vacation Rules, his major works are: Tourist Experience and Fulfilment: Insights from Positive Psychology (Routledge, 2013), and Tourists, Tourism and the Good Life (Routledge, 2011).

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