Two Reasons Your Vacations Aren’t Making You Happy

Behavioral Psychology
Are your family trips an exercise in pleasure or comfort? Behavior economics guru Dan Ariely notes that there's a vivid difference between the two... and it may mean the difference between a fantastic vacation and one that's just okay.
  • Transcript


Dan Ariely:  Vacations are really interesting because for many families it's one of their biggest discretionary expenses throughout the year. Of course, we pay more money on housing and so on, but vacations are discretionary. And the question is are people getting the most happiness that they can out of their vacation dollars? And there's a couple of interesting mistakes that people make when it comes to a vacation. Think about the timeline. You have the time before the vacation; you have the time during the vacation; and you have the time after the vacation. Before the vacation is the time that you get to think about the vacation and anticipate it. During the vacation is when you actually enjoy the vacation, and afterwards it's the time that you savor. You look back; you think about it and so on.

From those three periods, which is the shortest? The actual vacation. In fact when you think about the vacation, you shouldn't think just about the vacation, you should also think about anticipation and also think about memory. And I can tell you that personally we've gone to some vacations with my family that, at the moment, were not fantastic. At the moment you would say that we climbed some mountains; it was difficult; it was complex; and so on. So the actual vacation itself every moment of it was not exactly joyful, but reflecting on it backwards has been just amazing. So that's one thing about vacation is you really want to think about the whole experience and what vacations are going to actually enrich your life and become input for memory for years to come and not just something that is good for its own sake.

Another interesting thing that come back about vacations over and over is whether to repeat the same vacation we've been to before or whether to try a new spot. And repeating something we've done before has some advantages. It's kind of a sure thing. You know what to expect. There's not going to be disappointments. But are there going to be unexpected excitements? Probably not as well. The famous economist [Tibor] Scitovsky had this wonderful book called The Joyless Economy. And he said there are two things in life: There are pleasures and comforts. There are things that are really amazing and things that are kind of okay. And what happens is that too often we don't do the amazing things because we go for the okay things. So what happens is you say to yourself I've been to that beach before; it was perfectly fine; I don't want to risk it; let's do this again. And it's true you're not taking any risk, but are you really building the kind of amazing repertoire that would feed you throughout the year and make you happy about that vacation? Probably not as well. So I think vacations needs to be something that is beyond the specific vacation and we need to be very worried about doing the comfort rather than the real pleasure.