Happy Travels


Make the most of vacation time with expert advice for reducing stress and experiencing joyful journeys.

By Amber Lanier Nagle

Taking time away from the daily grind and going on a trip gives us the opportunity to relax, explore the far reaches of the world, reconnect with loved ones and make lifelong memories. Vacations are good for our souls. They make us happier, right?

“Not necessarily,” says Michelle Gielan, positive psychology researcher and best-selling author of “Broadcasting Happiness.” “All vacation experiences are not equal nor do they automatically create greater happiness for travelers. There are many factors
to consider.”

Gielan and her husband, Shawn Achor, co-founder of consulting firm GoodThink Inc., have researched and reported on happiness for years. To understand their conclusions, it’s important to know the formal definition of happiness and how it is measured.

“Happiness is the joy we feel as we grow toward our potential,” Gielan says. “Just the act of lounging on a beach probably won’t produce long-term individual happiness, but if you use that time to think about life, find peace within, resolve a problem, or have a meaningful conversation with a loved one, then it could produce happiness.”

Happiness is a somewhat subjective term and is harder to assess than other quantifiable parameters—after all, it can’t be measured in gallons or feet. “We use surveys to measure the happiness of travelers before, during and after a vacation,” Gielan explains. “We ask several questions about their preparation and activities while they are on vacation, and we ask them to rate their joy and well-being using scales. Then we compare the experiences.”

In 2013, Gielan and Achor conducted a study to help them evaluate the connection between happiness and travel, along with the effect of travel upon stress and energy. They found that specific types of travel can make people happier, healthier and more productive upon returning home—but related stressors can negate any of the positive benefits. To that end, they identified things that travelers can do before, during and after a vacation to increase the chance of having a joyful experience.

Before You Go

Gielan and Achor’s research concluded that among travelers who reported negative trips, 28 percent were still figuring out details at the last minute.

Research shows that planning ahead reduces stress and leads to more positive trips.

“Those higher levels of stress can come from not planning ahead,” Gielan explains. “That’s why it is key to plan—book your flights early, make hotel reservations well in advance, think about the activities that appeal to you and your family and, if necessary, make reservations to ensure that you will be able to participate in those activities.”

Karen Gruber agrees that planning is key to a happy, less stressful vacation. Each summer for more than a decade, her family—including six children who now range in age from 10 to 19—has traveled from Manhattan to take up residence at Sea Island. “We work with the concierge and plan as much as we can before we arrive,” she says.

She reviews menus to ensure that preferred snacks are waiting in the rooms when they arrive. She even anticipates the need for personal transportation and works with the concierge days in advance to reserve rental cars to take her family on day trips.

“I make reservations for next year’s summer vacation a year in advance,” she says. “I don’t want to worry about it, so while we are on vacation, I go ahead and book our stay for the following year.”

Indeed, Gielan and Achor’s research found that 90 percent of survey respondents who had positive trips had planned them more than a month in advance. Not only does determining the details well ahead of time reduce stress, it also allows travelers to experience “anticipatory joy.”

“Plan your vacation several weeks in advance and savor it before,” Gielan recommends. “Consider the parties you attended in high school or college. There was so much happiness associated with talking about the party the week before and getting dressed for the party that night.”

For families with children, she suggests browsing vacation brochures together. “Ask them, ‘What do you want to do while we are on vacation this year?’ ” Gielan says. “Let them participate in the planning and allow them to get excited about the trip, too.”

While You’re There

It’s often tempting to take a little work along when you go on vacation, but Gielan advises against it.

“Everyone’s brain needs a break, so make sure you unplug,” she says. “You can’t fool your brain. If you plan to work a little while you are away, your brain will never fully disconnect and that will cause stress and interfere with your travel happiness.”

But if completely abandoning the office isn’t an option, she suggests setting aside one day during the travel period to concentrate on work. “It’s better than contaminating several hours each and every day,” she says. “Throw yourself into your work on that predetermined day, but unplug during the rest of the vacation and concentrate on what fulfills you personally.”

The couple’s studies also identified a high correlation between travel happiness and social support and interaction during the vacation—connecting with friends who live near your vacation destination or hiring a great guide to escort you on a tour.

The Gruber family has visited Sea Island each summer for more than a decade. | Photo courtesy of Jeff Calenberg

“On the best [happiest] trips, 77 percent connected with a friend or local host who helped them make decisions and plans,” Gielan says. “Connecting with someone knowledgeable reduced the stress level of the travel and created an environment resulting in a happy travel experience.”

They also found that a sense of security was important to travelers’ happiness. Diana Coughlin along with her husband, John, and children, Cody, 20, and Kennedi, 15, visit Sea Island several times each year. “It’s our vacation spot,” Coughlin says. “We love the peacefulness of Sea Island and the fact that at its core, it centers around family. Every vacation we’ve had at Sea Island has been a very happy one.”

Knowing that her family is safe is essential for Coughlin.

“We know the staff, and we are familiar with Sea Island like it is a second home,” she says. “I know that when my daughter goes out for a bike ride that she will be safe, and that brings me so much peace of mind. I don’t have to worry—I can enjoy our time and be happy.”

The Afterglow

In addition to building excitement in the weeks leading up to your departure, Gielan says savoring your vacation afterward will also give you a happiness boost.

“So many people take hundreds of photos while they are on vacation and then forget about them,” she says. “One way to extend vacation happiness is to do something special with those photos—post on social media, frame some for your home, or share them with family and friends.”

She uses the example of when she and Achor vacationed in Paris.

“About a month after we got home, we hosted a Paris party and invited friends over,” she says. “We had a short slide show with some of our favorite photos from our trip and told a few stories about our experiences. We served French wine and cookies. It was a great way for us to share our vacation with others, relive it all over again, and magnify our feelings
of happiness.”

Trips give us experiences, experiences give us stories, and stories open the door for conversations with others for many years to come. So although many of us think of vacations as simply two weeks out of the year, we can lengthen the time we feel joy associated with those trips by discussing them with friends and family after we return home. Share the memories of your getaways often, and enjoy the happiness that results from each time you tell them.

In addition to lingering cheerfulness, research also shows that 94 percent of travelers have as much or more energy after they returned home from a great vacation—yet another reason to make the most of your time away.

So plan ahead, leave work at the office, connect with local experts and head for a destination where you will feel secure. After a positive, well-managed getaway, you’ll return home feeling cheerful, energized and ready to share your happiness with others, who may just be inspired to plan joyful trips of their own. 

Quick Tips for Joyful Journeys

Michelle Gielan, positive psychology researcher and best-selling author of “Broadcasting Happiness,” shares five suggestions for a pleasant travel experience.

1. Plan for the greatest annoyance and work it out. “Think of all the stress-related problems you may encounter on vacation, and think about solutions in advance,” Gielan says. “Load some movies on an iPad to watch in case your flight is delayed or the weather doesn’t cooperate. Or say to yourself, ‘If the airline loses my luggage, I’ll go buy new clothes.’ ”

2. Pack noise-canceling headphones. From in-flight announcements interrupting a much-needed nap en route to the shouts of fellow beachgoers as you try to relax with a book by the sea, these are bound to be useful during almost any trip. “Many of us seek peace and ease on vacation, and so we need a way to block loud, irritating sounds that may occur,” Gielan says.

3. Make a social media plan. Though it is not a good idea to pore over social media accounts while you are on vacation, Gielan sees value in moderation. “Consider posting one happy moment from each day or a couple of times each week,” she says. “That will allow you to share your joy and feel connected with the world.”

4. When traveling with another person, plan a secret surprise. “Happiness is gained from re-establishing connections with people you love,” Gielan says. If your husband craves Thai food, identify a great Thai restaurant at your destination, make early reservations and take him there one night. If your travel companion is interested in Civil War history, plan a day trip to a nearby Civil War site and hire a knowledgeable tour guide to meet you there.

5. Bring something special back with you to help you relive the getaway. While it could be a classic souvenir like a trinket or collectible, also look into options that can be used, or even better, shared with friends and family. “Consider bringing home food and wine selections,” Gielan says. “When you get home, plan a night to commemorate your vacation and celebrate the things you loved most about your trip.”


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