There are untold shelves of books dedicated to the art of maximizing our time at work, but no corresponding literature on maximizing our leisure time. Even asking the question of how to “optimize” a vacation seems fundamentally un-vacation-like. And yet people constantly puzzle over how to get the most out of their valuable time off: poring over guidebooks, checking the forecast, looking up online reviews of hotels and restaurants, arguing with spouses over where to go and what to do, and when.
The problem, say some social scientists, is that people do all this — and spend thousands of dollars — with an incomplete understanding of what qualities make an experience enjoyable. Take duration. A longer vacation seems, by definition, better than a shorter one, and having lots of paid vacation time is a highly valued job perk. But when we recall an experience, and how it made us feel, it turns out that length isn’t terribly important…
But research looking at how people actually feel about their vacations suggests that, by and large, they remember them warmly — more warmly, in fact, than they feel while taking them. The psychologists Leigh Thompson, of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Terence Mitchell, of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, in 1997 reported the results of a study in which they asked people on three different vacations — a trip to Europe, Thanksgiving break, and a three-week bicycle tour of California — to fill out a series of emotional inventories before the vacation, during it, and then after.
They found that in all three cases, the respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.