When a vacation reduces stress—and when it doesn’t
I thought it was simple: Vacations are fun, Americans are stressed, and happiness raises productivity and sales. Therefore, people should take more vacations, right? But research doesn’t hold that line of thinking up. Not every vacation is equal.
According to a 2013 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is the only developed country that does not legally require a single paid vacation day. The government declares holidays for federal employees, but there is no law saying that employers have to pay for “vacation days.” The EU, on the other hand, legally requires 20 paid vacation days as a minimum. France requires 30 days. If you want to get more jealous, Austria, Belgium, and Denmark actually pay employees more when on vacation to offset the costs of travel. Seriously.
But don’t get too frustrated because, statistically speaking, the average American reading this is not taking all of their vacation days anyway. According to a 2013 Expedia survey, Americans left half a billion vacation days unused last year. That’s four days of vacation per person (a whole week when paired with a holiday) that you could have taken off but chose not to.
Is that a problem? Maybe not. In 2010, the journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life published a study where researchers in the Netherlands found most people were not happier after a vacation. Approximately 1,500 adults were questioned about their happiness before and after travel, and for the average vacation, people reported no change in happiness. Why spend all the time, money, and energy if vacations do not have a return on that investment? Do vacations make us more stressed?
Americans left half a billion vacation days unused last year. That’s four days of vacation per person that you could have taken off but chose not to.
A closer examination of the Netherlands data shows that there is no happiness gain after vacation if there was moderate to high travel-related stress. Stress involved with managing transportation, trying to deal with details while on the trip, unfamiliarity with the location, and lack of feeling safe all contributed to travelers feeling less happy and more stressed, and they had lower energy at work after the average vacation. But not all travel is equal. Could a less stressful trip result in higher happiness and energy at work? Is there a vacation from work that scientifically leads to greater levels of happiness and energy and lower stress?
In December 2013, I partnered with happiness researcher Michelle Gielan from the Institute of Applied Positive Research to conduct a study based upon a 34-item survey of 414 travelers. From this survey, a clearer picture has emerged about the connection between travel and happiness and the effect of travel upon stress and energy.
The overarching finding was that taking time off from work can make you happier, healthier, and more productive when you return, but only specific kinds of travel produce these results. Travel does not lower happiness when you return to work—travel stress does. All trips are not alike. We found a statistically significant and strong correlation between happiness and stress on a negative trip (r=-.68). We also found a significant correlation between happiness on the trip and energy at work after a stressful trip (r=-.41).
In other words, most of the happiness gleaned from vacation is dependent upon the stress level of the vacation. Poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away. The less the stress, the more likely you will experience a positive benefit from the time off. A positive, well-managed vacation can make you happier and less stressed, and you can return with more energy at work and with more meaning in your life.
Travel does not lower happiness when you return to work—travel stress does. All trips are not alike.
Positive vacations have a significant effect upon energy and stress. In our study, 94% had as much or more energy after coming back after a good trip. In fact, on low-stress trips, 55% returned to work with even higher levels of energy than before the trip.
Here are some key tips to help you create positive vacation.
Focus on the details
In our study, 74% find the most stressful aspect of travel to be figuring out the details: travel uncertainty, transportation, wasting time figure things out on the trip, and being unfamiliar with the location. Instead of suffering, ask for help. Find a good travel agent to plan some of this for you.
Plan more than one month in advance
Ninety percent of our respondents had planned the details more than one month before going on a good trip. For the negative trips, 28% were still figuring out details at the last minute or even on the trip itself. The earlier you plan, the better.
Go far away
An average vacation creates no positive effect on happiness or stress. But 84% of the best trips over the past five years were to locations outside of country. This reconfirms the Twitter study findings that the happiness level of users increased the further the post was geotagged from the user’s home. And 94% found traveling during the vacation to be more meaningful than a “staycation.”
Meet with someone local to help at the location
The biggest stressors on the trip were managing travel details, not feeling safe, and lack of knowledge of the location. On the best trips, 77% knew and met with a local host or had a knowledgeable friend, which was 35% more than on the worst trips. If you don’t know someone personally, companies like Monograms specialize in providing travelers with a local host to ensure that they have social support and local knowledge on the trip to lower stress.
If happiness is an advantage and we need to find a way to lower stress at work, don’t get tripped up: take a vacation, but do it the right way. Create a positive vacation so you can return recharged, less stressed, and happier.
This article was originally published at Harvard Business Review and is republished here with permission.