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The Perfect 2-Week Vacation According To Science

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The perfect 2-week vacation, according to science.

Employees with 5 years of experience average just 14 days of paid vacation time per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With such a small amount of time to travel, employees feel an inordinate amount of pressure to make their vacation perfect. But is that quest for the perfect two week vacation backfiring?

Every year friends of mine in the corporate sector invest considerable resources into the coveted two week vacation, planning it out months in advance and sparing no expense.

Yet, they come back unrefreshed, unsatisfied and more eager to work than before. So, what gives?

Sure, vacation shaming and other factors play a role, according to a 2017 Alamo vacation survey, but the real cause for vacation unhappiness is more in the mind than back at the office.

Let’s travel back to 1999, the night before the arrival of the new millennium. People were partying as if the world was going to end. Researchers discovered something surprising after it didn’t though: the more resources people invested, the less fun they reported having, as per a 2003 journal article published in The Psychology of Economic Decisions.

Jamie Kurtz, an Associate Professor of Psychology at James Madison University, addressed this travel-happiness conundrum, and many others, in her book the The Happy Traveler: Unpacking The Secrets of Happy Vacations. As excerpted from Dr. Kurtz’s book: “Follow-up studies shed light on why: the constant monitoring of emotional states (‘Am I happy right now? Is this as fun as I expected?’) combined with the pressure to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime event detracted from the simple pleasure of the moment.”

When you add up all that time and money invested, the knowledge that time is short and that vacations should be fun, Dr. Kurtz said “you have a recipe for incredibly high expectations and a whole lot of pressure.” Expectations and pressure you may be sabotaging. Sabotaging through your very own expectation for happiness. 

She recommends turning off the internal happiness monitor and, instead of tracking your mood from moment to moment, to just get lost in the new cultures, challenges and connections instead. I’ve done this for years without even realizing it, and reading it was a lightbulb moment for me.

Take my most recent trip to Monaco for a global entrepreneurship conference. I didn’t have a chance to plan much for it, yet ended up enjoying more compared to past trips I’ve planned and spent considerably more on. In hindsight, the comfort of the plans would’ve not only set me up for being let down, but they also probably deterred me from many valuable spur of the moment choices.

Unlike my last time in the Principality, which was planned to the hour, this time I was able to make friends with several event sponsors, hotel staff and other guests from all over the world. But it wasn’t all just fun and games. The work was immersive and challenging, too. In fact, weeks later I still wouldn’t trade that time spent for an equal amount of time just sitting on a beach somewhere.

Which is another part of the travel equation Dr. Kurtz so eloquently touched on: that just because your environment changes, doesn’t mean you do. Just like how you would back home, it’s important to keep yourself engaged. Down time on the sand is fine, but only after you’ve had a chance to expose yourself to a variety of more dynamic experiences.

So, for your next two week vacation, plan, but don’t over plan. Make time for static actives, like star gazing and cold drinks on the beach.

But don’t be afraid to hike, run, learn, connect with strangers and push yourself past new boundaries.

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