Scientific findings can help you maximize happiness and relaxation
by Jennifer Mitchell
You have a set number of vacation days to use throughout the year, or maybe even unlimited paid days off, but you’re not sure how to use them. Should you take several long weekend trips to stateside cities or spend three weeks traveling though southeast Asia? Although budget, destinations and who you’re traveling with will play into how long you’re away, there is a fairly definitive answer to the ideal vacation length according to science. And that’s eight days.
A new much circulated study conducted by the University of Tampere in Finland and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, followed 54 travelers on vacations lasting 14 days or longer to measure happiness and well-being before, during and after the trips. The study revealed that vacationers need eight days to fully unwind and feel refreshed. However, happiness peaked at eight days and fell dramatically after 11, making seven to 11 days the perfect vacation length.
The irrefutable benefits of getting away
This shouldn’t come as a shock to most, but vacation makes you happy. In our increasingly connected world, professionals are working more hours than ever before; and the lines between home and work life are often blurred. Taking a break and stepping away from work and home responsibilities can be hugely beneficial, whether you’re taking a staycation or European adventure. The Tampere study showed that feelings of happiness and personal well-being rapidly increased as soon as participants took a break from the rat race. The travelers started sleeping better, feeling diminished stress and they experienced overall positive feelings.
The eight-day sweet spot
So, why eight days? According to the Tampere study, it takes the average person eight days to forget about work and let go of responsibilities and stress. The first day of a vacation almost doesn’t count. After a stressful work week, it takes a minute to wind down and acclimate to vacation. Travelers need time to unpack, get their bearings and settle into a new, more relaxed routine. As the stress started to fall away, travelers in the study experienced more and more positive vibes and feelings of contentment, which grew until day eight.
At that point, however, those feelings start to fade; and by day 11, many travelers experienced a drastic drop-off. By this time in the trip, homesickness and boredom started to kick in, and many travelers started to crave regular routines.
Spacing vacations throughout the year
Not only did researchers look at the ideal vacation length, but they looked at how to space vacations out over the course of a year, or several years. The recommendation it to take multiple evenly-spaced, eight-day vacations throughout the year, rather than using all vacation days during the summer months or saving up days to take one big trip every few years.
Each vacation offers an opportunity to unwind and recharge. Spacing these trips out will be better for your well-being than planning one big trip and may even ward off the health risks of premature death and illness.
The alternative to the eight-day vacation
Though eight days might be the happiness peak for many travelers, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right vacation length for everyone or for every trip. Some people are stressed out by the thought of taking a full week off of work. They might actually allow themselves to relax more easily by taking a string of three-day weekends. Other perks to the three-day weekend: less planning and lower costs.
A study about leisure and well-being showed that our happiness depends on whether or not we have autonomy over our activities. And since we all derive happiness from different activities, our ideal vacation destination and associated activities will vary. With that in mind, the ideal trip length in your preferred vacation environment may stray from the eight-day norm.
How to maximize vacation happiness
These guidelines for vacation length are only helpful if you truly disconnect and relax on your vacation. So, we put together a few tips for leaning into vacation mode before, during and after the trip for maximum enjoyment.
1. Appreciate the planning phase
We’ve already found that going on vacation brings people a lot of joy, but one study of travelers found that much of the happiness associated with a vacation actually happens before the vacation. The anticipation of going on a trip can bring as much joy as the vacation itself, so be sure to plan your trip well in advance to maximize the fun of looking forward to it.
2. Balance relaxation with activities
Everyone vacations differently, but it’s important to give yourself some breathing room even if you’re the type to pack your itinerary full of activities. Our “do-more” culture sometimes tricks us into thinking that we’re missing out if we take a break from the adventures to relax. When you’re planning your vacation, try to be acutely aware of what you’re hoping to get out of the vacation. If relaxation is what you land on, make time for that. And be sure to leave time for spontaneity. In a New York Times post about how to be more spontaneous when traveling, travel writer Seth Kugel suggests treating your itinerary like a rough draft. You should be ready to abandon your plans and modify your schedule if something you encounter on vacation piques your interest.
3. Unplug from work (for real)
The relaxation of a vacation doesn’t come from stepping away from the office, it comes from stepping away from the work. Find someone you trust to take over for you while you’re gone and clearly communicate expectations to your team. The next step is to limit the technology you have access to on vacation.
Leave as many devices at home as possible when going on vacation, and maybe consider making a list of the only instances in which you’re allowed to use your electronics (i.e.- getting directions on Google maps, checking into your flight, posting to Instagram). If it’s not on the list, don’t even open the application.
Alexandra Samuel writes in the Harvard Business Review that it might be easiest to set up a separate email account for vacations. She suggests sharing the address only with the people you need or want to hear from when traveling and using mail rules to filter out work and forward any emails relevant to your vacation.
If you do decide to check in on work periodically, make sure to come up with a game plan with your travel companions as to when, where and how often you’ll check email.
4. Have a re-entry strategy
Unfortunately, the Tampere study found that the joy of vacation often fades after just one day back at work. To help ease your transition back into real life, consider adding a buffer day to your schedule. Rather than flying home at midnight and trying to go back to work the next day, give yourself time to readjust, unpack, shop for groceries, do laundry and weed through your inbox. That way you won’t feel like you’re stepping off the plane and into a mound of stress quicksand.
5. Commemorate your travels
Keep the good times rolling long after you return home. Commemorate your travels by picking up collectibles that spark joy on your vacation and keep around your home or at your desk. Or socialize you travels on an ongoing basis with travel quest maps you can wear. These visual reminders will keep the vacation vibes strong and remind you of the fun you had on your trip.
Need help deciding where to spend your eight-day vacation? Create a map with No Small Plan and browse through our travel quest ideas. If you have tips on how to maximize relaxation on vacation, share them in the comments below and on social media with the hashtag #NoSmallPlan.
Jennifer Mitchell is a blogger, comedian, freelance copywriter and travel enthusiast.