From an informal and highly unscientific survey of friends and colleagues, I can report that the reasons for not feeling happy after returning from vacation include: the flight home (red-eye to New York); realizing what they just did to their credit-card balance; getting back to work; wondering if they should have gone somewhere different; sharp memories of kids fighting constantly in the back seat of the rental car; and sadness that the next vacation will not arrive for months, typically around the end of the year, making them wonder over and over, How am I going to hold out until then?
I, in contrast, not having taken a vacation this year and with none scheduled, am positively euphoric compared with these dour souls: I have something to look forward to and a world of possible destinations to fantasize about.
Anecdotes do not equal data, as scientists say, but in this case the anecdotes about vacations failing to give us a post-trip mood boost match the results of years of research. Studies point to an inescapable conclusion: “Generally, there is no difference between vacationers’ and non-vacationers’ post-trip happiness,” as the authors of a recent paper in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life put it. One interesting exception is the period just before taking a vacation, when about-to-be travelers report feeling happier than nonvacationers, possibly because the anticipation puts them in a good mood.
But the holiday aftermath is a different story, and a glum one. One small study in 2008 used text messages from vacationers during their holidays to assess how happy they were, and then compared these real-time missives with how people recalled their holiday moods once they’d returned to real life. Vacationers were, overall, happier on holiday than in their normal lives. So far, so good. But once home, they stank at remembering how happy they had been while away, consistently recalling higher levels of happiness than they had reported at the time. That suggests two things: we will ourselves to recall being happy on vacation (if we weren’t happy, why did we just spend all that money?), but by comparison real life feels grimmer. Another small study, from 2004 in the Annals of Tourism Research, measured the effect of a vacation on post-vacation mood more directly, having people fill out a questionnaire that assessed their levels of happiness right before going on holiday and then when they returned. (Nontravelers also filled out the questionnaire, with results confirming that about-to-be vacationers indeed experience an anticipatory high.) The carry-over effect of a vacation on happiness was so small, the best the researchers could report was that vacations are “not causing individuals to feel any worse off than before traveling.” I don’t think we’ll be seeing that sentiment on tourist Web sites any time soon. (“Come to the Caribbean: you won’t feel any lousier than you did before vacationing here!”)
Even the small positive effects last about as long as a sunburn. Sure, take a vacation in hopes that it will relieve your burnout, but within three to four weeks people are feeling as stressed out as before, found a 2001 study in which the authors concluded: “Vacation alleviated perceived job stress and burnout as predicted ... [But we found] a return to prevacation levels [of burnout] four weeks later.” That may be one reason the sense of happiness fades as well: if you feel just as much burnout a month after returning from vacation as you did before, no wonder you’re grouchy. This result isn’t from just a single study, by the way: a 2009 meta-analysis of seven reached the same conclusion about the post-vacation letdown.
Why? For one thing, holiday trips are not 24/7 bliss. There are missed flight connections, disappointing hotels, bad food, and illness. Looking back on all that, once we’re back home, can understandably put a dent in our happiness. Also, what’s called the peak-end effect can affect post-trip mood. The most intense experiences (peak) and those that occur as the vacation is winding down (end) leave the most lasting impressions. If we fail to pack a few ultrahighs into a trip (swim with the dolphins one day, climb a volcano another) and instead have a lot of so-so pleasant experiences—or start the trip with a bang but end it in a letdown whimper—then post-trip happiness will suffer.
Although scientists generally find no correlation between length of a vacation and post-trip contentment, there is one argument in favor of shorter vacations. Say you get 10 days of vacation a year. If you take them as three vacations (of 4 days, 4 days, and 2 days), you will have more final days (3), when fun experiences have the strongest carry-over effect, and more pre-vacation anticipation highs (3) than if you took two 5-day trips, let alone a single 10-day trip. (The above does not hold if, like me, you find vacation planning so stressful that the very thought of doing it three times a year is enough to make you a workaholic.)
The latest study of vacations’ effect on happiness has the virtue of studying a large number of people (1,530). Scientists in the Netherlands had participants answer a questionnaire asking if they had recently “enjoyed their daily tasks,” had recently felt “unhappy,” or had recently felt “gloomy and dejected.” Possible answers were “never,” “almost never,” “sometimes,” “very often,” and “always.” The study compared responses of the 556 people who did not go on a holiday with those of the 974 who did, controlling for things like personality (extroverts tend to be happier and might vacation more, so you have to subtract this effect from the happiness levels of vacationers).
Result: vacationers were happier before their trips than were nonvacationers, confirming the anticipation effect or suggesting that people able to take trips might have more happiness-boosting characteristics (good health, money, friends and family to travel with) than nonvacationers do. But “post-trip happiness did not differ between vacationers and non-vacationers,” the scientists found. The travelers’ happiness edge had actually disappeared. Even more sobering, happiness levels post-trip were little different from what they had been before. Even people who had had the least stressful vacations experienced this happiness fadeout, with their sense of contentment falling to pre-trip levels eight weeks after their return. “The benefits of a ‘very relaxed’ holiday trip last maximally for two weeks,” write the scientists. “A holiday trip does not have a prolonged effect on happiness,” and “length of stay is not associated with post-trip happiness ... Returning home involves a swift return to pre-trip happiness levels.” Memo to husband: I’ll be on the patio.
Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK’s science editor and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.