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How to Beat the Post-Vacation Blues, According to a Travel Psychologist

June 16, 2018
5 min read
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Vacations are hugely beneficial for our mental and physical health, and both psychologists and physicians have devoted research to how travelers can make the positive effects last long after the vacation ends.

Because, unfortunately, the good feelings can start disappearing before you've even boarded your flight home.

On vacations, we let go of daily stressors. Our blood pressure drops, concentration improves, we sleep more deeply and become distinctly more aware of our emotions and thoughts. In fact, according to the Framingham Heart Study and the American Medical Association, our blood pressure can fall so significantly while on vacation that it can stay down even after we're back home. The risk of strokes and heart attacks is correspondingly lessened, too.

But as the vacation winds down, we all too often start to experience a looming sense of melancholy. And before we know it, our blood pressure is rising and our anxiety is returning. It's a typical case of the post-vacation blues.

Fortunately, travelers can take deliberate steps during and after a vacation to prolong the feel-good (and good-for-you) effects of a leisurely getaway.

Buy experiences, not souvenirs

One key way to make the positive effects of a vacation last after you return home, according to the University of Chicago postdoctoral research fellow Amit Kumar and Cornell professor Thomas Gilovich, both psychologists, is to focus on making experiential “purchases” while on vacation, rather than shopping for material goods. These experiences become part of our personalities and can shape our outlooks.

In the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kumar and Gilovich wrote that ”[e]xperiential purchases (many of which were travel-related) made people happier than material purchases — and this was explained by the fact that experiences provided more conversational value."

Though traveling in and of itself is an experience, their research also suggests that spending money on tours and activities brings more emotional value than a suitcase full of souvenirs. So much as taking away someone's ability to talk about an experience diminishes the satisfaction he or she derives from it, the pair found. Bragging rights, it turns out, count for something real after all.

"Imagine that you just returned from a week of hiking in the Sierras ... or a week of sampling the restaurants, art galleries and theater offerings in New York City," Kumar and Gilovich said. "How likely would you be to tell others about your trip? ... Now imagine that you spent a similar sum of money on a home theater system, new furniture or some high-end clothing you have been eyeing. How likely would you be to tell others about these purchases?"

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Plan your next vacation

On a pragmatic level, you can also plan ahead. When I was a kid, my father usually rebooked the house we had rented for the summer on the day before we left, making it immediately something to look forward to for the next year. That anticipation became part of the vacation itself.

The University of Chicago's Kumar agrees: "Even though the vacation can seem fleeting — that is, our trips seem to come and go in a flash — we also 'consume' our anticipation of our travel experiences and derive utility from discussing them with others after the fact."

Don't discount what you just did on your vacation, but when you start planning your next getaway, start with a straightforward list of how you'll do things even better next time — or even something as simple as the places you want to go or the activities you want to do.

Psychologists Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and E.J. Masicampo of Wake Forest, studied what's called the Zeigarnik effect, the tendency to remember incomplete or interrupted tasks more clearly than those we have finished. They found that planning (making a list, for example) can free your mind of intrusive thoughts and leave you feeling clearheaded and, frankly, more earnest about making your next trip a reality.

"Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal, but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits," the researchers said.

Even if that means tackling your untouched inbox, you'll be able to do so with less distraction or anxiety.

Consider yourself lucky

Bear in mind that if you get to take a vacation, you’re one lucky human being: More than half of Americans don't use all of their paid vacation days, and last year some 24% of US workers didn't use any vacation days at all. Being grateful that you were able to break away from the office is a good place to start. It will help you appreciate the time away and, as a result, make you feel less disappointed that you have to come back to reality.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Robert Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough, of the University of Miami, said that their research had found "a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits."

Being grateful for the privilege of breaking up a tired routine is a good place to start when thinking about your time spent away.

So enjoy what you experience, and try to make it last.