Healthy Mind

Vacation Anticipation Can Boost Happiness—and It Doesn’t Even Require You To Travel

Alex Palmer

Photo: Getty Images/JGIJamie Grill
Pandemic or not, travel can function as a powerful source of happiness for some. According to a recent study published in Tourism Analysis, frequent travelers report being 7 percent happier on average than those who don't travel at all. But what does that mean for globetrotters who have found themselves grounded this past year due to travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic? Well, while exotic vacations or even a weekend getaway might be out of reach, those suffering from cabin fever do have a powerful—and safe—way to improve their mood while still satisfying travel urges: Start planning a trip anyway.

“The mere idea of getting away can bring a sense of immediate happiness,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear. “In essence, the simple act of imagining a future positive event can induce a sense of joy and well-being.”

Particularly during the pandemic, when isolation and monotony can add to already high levels of stress and anxiety, having upcoming travel adventures to look forward to can be meaningful for mental-health gains and general well-being. So by planning a trip, you're planting a seed of excitement in your mind for future-tense happiness. This vacation anticipation, experts say, can be effective in boosting happiness—perhaps even competing with effects of actually being able to take a real trip.

How to savor the feel-good effects of vacation anticipation

A 2010 study of 1,530 Dutch adults published in Applied Research in Quality of Life found that those going on a vacation experienced their highest level of happiness in the weeks and months before a trip. Upon returning from their travels, happiness levels dropped back down to about the same place as those who took no trip at all. The takeaway? It's the vacation anticipation that's what effectively stokes excitement and, by proxy, happiness.

“When you plan your next vacation, it can create positive emotions and expectations. If you have a vacation next week, this week you’ll probably be feeling better.” —Chun-Chu Chen, PhD

“When you plan your next vacation, it can create positive emotions and expectations,” says Chun-Chu Chen, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University, Vancouver, who authored the study which found frequent travelers to have a 7 percent higher level of life satisfaction than non-travelers. “If you have a vacation next week, this week you’ll probably be feeling better.”

Excitement and anticipation aside, Dr. Chen’s research found that those respondents who talked about their vacations with friends and family while planning them—even trips that were months away—were more likely to actually take the trip (travel restrictions permitting). And getting others in our lives involved in our travel plans not only helps us to more fully imagine and anticipate the trip, but also provides what Dr. Chen calls the “social benefit” of travel, or strengthening connections with others through an outing.

Building travel anticipation with no trip planned

It's also possible to experience the sensation of vacation anticipation—and savor it—without actually planning any travel at all. According to Stephanie Harrison, founder and CEO of The New Happy, which uses behavioral research to help organizations create positive change in their employees, the very feeling of anticipation can deepen and extend positive feelings linked to happiness, self-esteem, and optimism. “Anticipatory savoring is a form of time-travel: projecting yourself into the future to imagine what a positive experience, like a trip, will be like, which then increases your positive emotions in the present moment,” says Harrison.

To practice anticipatory savoring, even when you can't actually travel,  Harrison recommends making a list of the benefits you glean from travel, such as the joy of a new experience, the curiosity of experiencing a shift in daily life and exploring a new culture, or the sense of possibility that it opens up in your life. “Then, ask yourself: Is there another way for me to satisfy these base-level desires—for joy, curiosity, possibility—in my life, even if I can't travel?” she says.

For example, one way to enjoy the emotional benefits of traveling without getting on a plane is to fully disconnect from work for a day or two. In Dr. Chen’s years of study into how travel impact a person’s life satisfaction, one of the key benefits he’s found is the detachment that a vacation provides individuals from their everyday responsibilities. (It's also a reminder that fully unplugging during time off from work is necessary to reap the mental benefits, no matter if you're traveling or not.)

“Travel helps you to really forget about your daily routine, your work or job,” says Dr. Chen. “It’s like how you’re more likely to enjoy a movie when you see it in a movie theater instead of watching on Netflix at home where there are so many distractions, and you might not even finish it.”

While you may more naturally disconnect from work responsibilities when you're, say, relaxing on a Caribbean beach or strolling through shops in different city or country, you can enjoy some of the positive effects of vacation anticipation by just planning a personal day (or days) to focus on relaxing, silencing all email and phone alerts. If conditions are safe, you might also consider experiences that create the feeling of being in a new place, even if you’re still close to home, whether through a staycation or a short road trip.

And while anticipating a future trip may help boost your emotions in the moment, Harrison recommends using that energy to savor other daily experiences, as well—especially in the midst of the pandemic. “Practicing noticing and lingering in the good, positive moments of your life—like a beautiful sunset, a nice meal, a relaxing evening with your family—will also boost your well-being in the moment,” she says.

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