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July 28, 2011

Why Vacations Fail

Marta Zaraska's Washington Post story looked at recent studies about vacations.

She wrote, "Do vacations make us happy for long? According to studies published in recent years, not really. Not only are the positive effects of holidays on our well-being weak, they also fade very fast. Once the traveling was over, researchers found, those who had gone away didn’t feel any better than those who had stayed home."

And: "Jeroen Nawijn of NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands found a holiday happiness curve: Our mood tends to be lowest through the first 10 percent of a holiday and quite high during the 'core phase,' which spans about 70 percent of the vacation time."

Below, the abstract of Nawijn's study, published in the May/June 2010 issue of the International Journal of Tourism Research.

The holiday happiness curve: a preliminary investigation into mood during a holiday abroad

We take holidays for pleasure, but how well do we actually feel during our holiday? This question was addressed in a study of 481 international tourists in the Netherlands, who answered questions about their mood of the day and about their satisfaction with life in general. Average mood appears to be high. Mood was somewhat lower among people who were in the first "travel phase" of about 10% of the holiday duration. Mood was highest during the "core phase," which covers about 70% of the holiday time. Mood then declines slightly, but increases during the last part of the holiday.

A second study by Nawijn found that vacationers' benefits "had all but vanished within the first week of everyday life."

Below, the abstract of that paper, published in the March 2010 issue of Applied Research in Quality of Life.

Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier After a Holiday

The aim of this study was to obtain a greater insight into the association between vacations and happiness. We examined whether vacationers differ in happiness, compared to those not going on holiday, and if a holiday trip boosts post-trip happiness. These questions were addressed in a pre-test/post-test design study among 1,530 Dutch individuals. 974 vacationers answered questions about their happiness before and after a holiday trip. Vacationers reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness, compared to non-vacationers, possibly because they are anticipating their holiday. Only a very relaxed holiday trip boosts vacationers’ happiness further after return. Generally, there is no difference between vacationers' and non-vacationers' post-trip happiness. The findings are explained in the light of set-point theory, need theory and comparison theory.

"Philip Pearce of James Cook University in Australia studied tourists visiting tropical islands along the Great Barrier Reef and discovered that their moods were particularly negative on the second and third days of their holidays, the time during which they also seemed to develop the most health problems. These ailments included skin rashes, tiredness, allergies, ear infections and asthma."

Below, the abstract of Pearce's paper, published in the June 1981 issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

"Environment Shock": A Study of Tourists' Reactions to Two Tropical Islands

The usefulness of links between tourism research and work in social psychology was considered. A diary-based study of tourists visiting tropical islands in North Queensland was discussed and changes in the day-to-day moods of tourists on the islands were reported. Some determinants of these mood changes were demonstrated using log linear analysis. Negative moods were more frequent on the second and third days of holiday, particularly during the evenings. It was argued that tourists experienced "environment shock" in visiting these resorts. Self-report health data confirmed this suggestion. Furthermore, tourists appeared to increase the number of self-initiated as compared to other-initiated activities during their holiday. It was concluded that the shift in activity patterns and the "environment shock" health problems were possible explanations of the day-to-day mood patterning reported in the study.

A fourth study, led by Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, coined the term "leisure sickness,"in which people develop symptoms of illness during weekends and vacations, even thought they rarely feel bad at work.

Wrote Zaraska, "Vingerhoets believes leisure sickness — the inability to relax and adapt to the pace of life outside work — to be more prevalent in people living in big cities. Those affected suffer from headaches, muscular pains, nausea and flulike symptoms just when their free time begins, whether it’s a weekend or holiday."

"I feel that there is a strong connection with workaholism. Men and women with responsible positions in management and much work pressure may suffer from this condition," Vingerhoets said.

Below, the abstract of Vingerhoets' study, published in the November/December 2002 issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

Leisure Sickness: A Pilot Study on its Prevalence, Phenomenology, and Background

Aim: To explore the prevalence, phenomenology, and background of leisure sickness, i.e., the condition of people developing symptoms of sickness during weekends and/or vacations. Method: In order to obtain an estimate of its prevalence, a representative Dutch sample consisting of 1,128 men and 765 women was asked to indicate to what extent they recognized themselves in our description of weekend and vacation sickness. For the investigation of the phenomenology and background of this condition and the characteristics of the patients suffering from it, questionnaire data were collected in new samples consisting of 114 cases and 56 controls. Questions referred to symptoms, onset, duration, appreciation of weekend and vacation activities, and appraisal of work and workload. Results: In the case of male respondents, 3.6 and 3.2% recognized themselves in the description of the weekend and the vacation syndrome, respectively, compared with 2.7 and 3.2% women. Most frequently reported symptoms were headache/migraine, fatigue, muscular pains, and nausea. In addition, viral infections (flue-like, common cold) were often reported in relation to vacations. Cases had generally suffered from leisure sickness for over 10 years and the onset was associated with stressful conditions. They attributed their condition to difficulties with the transition from work to nonwork, stress associated with travel and vacation, as well as workload and personality characteristics. There were no significant group differences in the appreciation of weekend and leisure activities or lifestyle during days off. Most striking differences were found with respect to experienced workload, sense of responsibility, and inability to relax. Conclusion: Leisure sickness is a relatively common condition. Specific lifestyle factors or leisure activities seem to be less relevant for its development. Concerning risk factors, the data tend to point to high workload and person characteristics, namely, the inability to adapt to the nonworking situation, a high need for achievement, and a high sense of responsibility with respect to work. Future studies should be designed for testing specific hypotheses concerning the underlying mechanisms and evaluating the effectiveness of psychological and/or physical activity interventions.

Finally, a fifth study, published in the Journal of Leisure Research, concluded that people shouldn't come back on a Sunday but instead should do so on a Thursday or Friday, so "we can insulate ourselves from the shock of job demands and prolong the holiday happiness boost."

I'll bet you could use a vacation right about now, huh?

Go ahead, take as long as you like.

July 28, 2011 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Prepping for climbing and fishing trips is a real joy. It is the same joy as having my mise en place for a meal or crafting an itinerary. I spent a week getting skunked on an obscure Oregon river - and loved every minute.

I guess that vacations are what we make them.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jul 28, 2011 6:33:58 PM

The longest vacation I've had in recent memory was a week in Paris, six years ago. This was the trip of a lifetime for me. It came up rather quickly, almost out the blue, and I was stunned and ecstatic to be there. Coming back to work was hard. Yet six years later, I remember the trip and I don't remember the first week back at work.

Also, some studies have proven that preparing for a trip was more satisfying than taking the trip. The way most people travel, I don't doubt it. I have the luxury of traveling alone and can do as I please, when I please. If I want to sleep until the middle of the day (extremely rare), I do. If I want to get up at the crack of dawn and go wandering, I do.

I also wonder how many of the unhappy vacationers mentioned in your post were Americans. We as a nation are leisure deprived.

Next on my agenda is a trip to Las Vegas. I have chosen a hotel away from the Strip, in a resort where everything is right there. If I decide to go in to see a show, I will, but mostly, I want to soak up the scenery, get together with some friends, and relax.

Easy peasy.

Posted by: Becs | Jul 28, 2011 5:12:44 PM

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