The Psychology of…. Holidays!

Holidays are here again!

Holiday Time!
Holiday time

At this time of year many of us are looking forward to a well deserved holiday. But will we experience blissful days of leisure, and can we be sure what we really got up to last time we went away? And what about that holiday weight gain? finds out a bit about the psychology behind our holidays and vacations… and how to make the most of them?

Memories of holidays past…

I love going on holiday. And, with a few notable exceptions, I think my holidays have all been pretty ace. Of course, they have changed over the years, with camping trips as a kid being replaced by local and then not-so-local trips with friends (with the amount of alcohol being consumed going up in line with the distance looking back on it). Then more romantic holidays with partners, a special honeymoon trip and then, back full circle, my partner and I took our own growing family camping earlier this year. As you’d imagine, I have many fond memories of events and adventures along the way!

…or the fantasy trip I never had?

Interesting, my memory of these trips is probably pretty sketchy. Work by famed psychologist Elizabeth Loftus1 suggests that a large number of our memories related to holidays are the result of what we thought (or more accurately, have had suggested to us) should have happened. For instance, families that went to Disneyland were asked to read reminiscences of other peoples trips. Some were told about an encounter with Bug Bunny (who we can be sure was not hanging out there as a Warner Brother character!). Of those that were told this, 36% recalled seeing him (against 8.7% in a control condition). So, our memories are malleable. You can see similar effects (albeit less specifically) yourself, think back you to your last holiday. You probably remember lots of nice things. Now think a bit harder. Actually, we may have got a bit irritated lugging bags around and being pushed in the checkout-cue, spent a day really ill with food poisoning and fallen out with our partner over the usual ups and downs of life. But you have to think pretty hard to get to these! These memory omissions aren’t actual false memories of course (they are pretty hard to detect), but represent a rosy view of the past that we seem to specifically apply to holidays2. We’ll check out false memories in more detail in a future post!

Wow. What a downer. Thanks.

So, you may have made up your holiday memories. Before you get too depressed, the good news is most people are happier when they are on holiday! In a 2008 survey3, nearly 96% of people sampled on holiday claimed to be in a positive mood. Now, this finding is one for the Journal of Obvious Findings, but this work by a psychologist named Nawijn it gets more interesting.The levels of happiness changes over the course of the break. In the first 10%, our mood is a bit low (as we are travelling, getting over work), then until about three-quarters of the way through we are at peak happiness (yeh!). Between about 80%-90% points of the holiday, we feel a bit down again (as we start worrying again). Then we seem to get over that and savour the last 10% as much if not more than the rest. So, 80% of your holiday will be super!

And that holiday weight?

Unfortunately, holiday weight gain is a significant contributor to annual weight gain4. My advice, forget it, you are on holiday! Just take some exercise in the one to two week post-holiday phase where you are most relaxed 🙂

So, how do we have great holidays?

Research suggests a few things we can to do have great holidays:

1. Not too long and not too short.

It seems about 8-14 days is an good amount- not too long and not too short- you get over that initial slump, and get a nice long 10% at the end!

2. Have a great event, remember a great holiday.

Work by Kahneman suggests the high point of our holiday predicts out recalled holidays, not the overall or average levels of happiness…. So have one memorable outing….

3. Turn off your phone.
No instagram, no work emails, no facebook. Savouring your time makes you happier 5

The best news?

Holidays are great, they bring families back together, increase coronary health and improve productivity. So, happy holiday season everyone!

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  1. Braun-LaTour, K. A., Grinley, M. J., & Loftus, E. F. (2006). Tourist memory distortion. Journal of Travel Research, 44(4), 360-367. 
  2. Mitchell, T. R., Thompson, L., Peterson, E., & Cronk, R. (1997). Temporal adjustments in the evaluation of events: The “rosy view”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33(4), 421-448. 
  3. Nawijn, J. (2010). The holiday happiness curve: A preliminary investigation into mood during a holiday abroad. International Journal of Tourism Research, 12(3), 281-290. 
  4. Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O’Neil, P. M., & Sebring, N. G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine, 342(12), 861-867. 
  5. Jose, P. E., Lim, B. T., & Bryant, F. B. (2012). Does savoring increase happiness? A daily diary study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(3), 176-187. 

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of…. Holidays!”

  1. I love holidays, but I also love planning them. I’ve heard planning a vacation can have as much of an impact on over all happiness as the actual vacation. I’ve never looked into it, but I do know I spend almost an entire year actively planning a trip, and that time is well spent (according to my happiness levels).

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