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What Science Says About Taking A Great Vacation

Dougal Waters
Getty Images

Summer vacations: We wait for them all year. We pour time, energy and money into planning them. Expectations can run unreasonably high.

On this week's show, a summer edition of Stopwatch Science with Daniel Pink that explores what social science research has to say about vacations: How to make them better and what pitfalls to avoid.

Stopwatch Science

In 2014, researchers found that where you are when you book vacation lodging matters more than you might realize. Study participants who booked hotels while at work generally purchased more luxurious accommodations than those who booked their vacation hotels from home. But ultimately those who booked from the workplace were less satisfied, possibly because their choice was rushed and their deal not as savvy.

Okay, so what about a dream vacation to some far flung exotic locale, maybe with palm trees, an empty white sand beach and sundowners by the sea? It's hard to imagine you can go wrong with a trip like that. Well, think again. A team of researchers found that extraordinary experiences often have an unfortunate downside. After you return home, it becomes difficult to relate to your peers who never saw what you did. The findings are drawn from a study in which one participant was selected to watch an extraordinary film. Everyone else saw just an average movie. The viewers of the average movie reported a more enjoyable experience than the person who saw the great film. That's because they were in the company of others. They shared the experience and could talk about it afterward. So rather than a wild beach on Bali, maybe it's time to consider burgers and beer on the neighborhood block instead.

We all hear the ads urging you to get in shape so you can be beach-body ready by the time your vacation arrives. There's only one problem. You may start your vacation at your ideal weight but you are unlikely to stay that way. One study showed that adults gained about 3/4ths of a pound while on vacation, a gain that persisted even six weeks later. This was despite the fact people participated in more physical activity on vacation . Researchers believe increased calorie consumption is to blame, especially in the form of alcohol, which people consume at roughly twice their usual rate while on holiday.

On the upside, vacations may help people decide when to play the markets. A NYU researcher tracked CEO's vacation schedules and found that CEO's tend to vacation when their companies' stocks are less volatile. On the other hand, when CEO's return, volatility in the company increases. The study's subtitle says it all: "Identifying and profiting from CEO vacation trips."

A good vacation leaves most of us feeling, well, good. Maybe even better than good. But how long does that vacation high last? Researchers in Germany tracked a group of school teachers. They found the teachers had higher levels of engagement at work and lower burnout rates after their vacations. However, the positive effects were all but gone a month later. The takeaway may be that we may need to get away from it all just a little more often.

Vacations, especially those that take one into the grandeur of nature, can induce a transcendent feeling of awe. And a sense of awe, researchers found, can increase ethical decision making and generosity. A little awe for you may be what's best for all of us.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Jennifer Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Max Nesterak and Chris Benderev. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk, @maggiepenman, @maxnesterak, and@cbndrv, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chris Benderev is a founding producer of and also reports stories for NPR's documentary-style podcast, Embedded. He's driven into coal mines, watched as a town had to shutter its only public school after 100 years in operation, and, recently, he's followed the survivors of a mass shooting for two years to understand what happens after they fade from the news. He's also investigated the pseudoscience behind a national chain of autism treatment facilities. As a producer, he's made stories about ISIS, voting rights and Donald Trump's business history. Earlier in his career, he was a producer at NPR's Weekend Edition, Morning Edition, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.