It’s no coincidence that when we talk about going on vacation, we say want to get away. Those few sweet days or weeks away from routine are one of the few chances to truly leave behind the stupid stuff we usually think about all day long. Instead: freedom. Twenty four hours, every single day, to sleep, eat, play and enjoy life a little bit more.
“This desire to escape is one of the fundamental motivations,” says Sebastian Filep, a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, who studies tourism and fulfillment. Scholars who study vacation psychology know that we need these temporary jail-breaks: the immediate impacts of vacation may be short-lived, but without escaping daily life occasionally, people actually live shorter lives.
Truly vacating on vacation, though, is a more elusive achievement than it should be. Psychologists who study happiness have found that planning a vacation and remembering it afterwards provide almost as much pleasure as actually being away, for instance.
Part of the challenge is that it’s not entirely clear what we’re after, and in his work, Filep has tried to answer these questions: “What is that we seek? And why do we we re-engage in travel even though it’s stressful?” That is, why do we buy plane tickets knowing that the flight will be long, the hotel smaller than we imagined, and the days less perfect than we planned?
Part of Filep’s answer is that we’re looking for a suite of psychological benefits: positive emotions, a sense of involvement in a new place, improvements in our relationships, meaning, and achievement. “We’re getting things that don’t just have to do with moods and feelings,” he says.
In other words, the best vacations aren’t just about consuming things that make you feel very good, very temporarily. With that in mind, here are some steps, informed by the work of Filep and other researchers, towards successfully getting away from it all.
Step 1: Think about who’ll be your partner in crime.
Often, we spend most of our vacation-planning time deciding where we’re going to go and forget to consider carefully who we’re going to go with. ”People make this mistake about focusing too much on the destination,” says Filep. “You need to choose your travel companions wisely.” Maybe this is the right moment to take a growing friendship to the next level. Maybe it’s the right time to spend with your partner. Conversely, maybe this is the year to split up—or to organize a group adventure rather an intimate trip.
Step 2. Actually leave work behind
Vacation does have measurable health benefits, likely linked to the “removal of demands previously put on the individual’s psychobiological systems,” as psychology researcher Jessica de Bloom writes in her study of how vacations affect workers’ health and wellbeing. What are those demands? Mostly, the stress of work.
Getting the benefits of vacation, then, means actually leaving work behind. Pick a mountain house with terrible phone reception and slow internet. Leave your laptop at home. Travel to a country on the other side of the world, where, by dint of time difference, you will sleep through every minor work crisis. Do whatever it takes to actually stop thinking about work.
Step 3. Have a goal
Part of a fulfilling vacation, Filep says, is feeling a sense of accomplishment. So set a goal. It doesn’t have to be serious. “It could be about self-development and learning,” says Filep. “It could be hedonic.” Maybe you want to climb a mountain. Maybe you want to sleep eight hours a night. Maybe you want to visit a particular national park. Maybe you want to drink until dawn.
Whatever the goal is, just make sure it’s reasonable; otherwise, you’ll set yourself up for failure. If you haven’t been exercising in months, don’t plan a hike that requires insane daily milage. If you usually fall asleep at 9:30 p.m., don’t expect to stay up all night for seven days straight.
Step 4. But break ordinary patterns of thought
It’s important not to be emotionally overambitious, either. “Lying peacefully on a beach is not a good idea if your head is swirling with thoughts of relationship problems or grappling with work issues that just won’t go away,” Filep and co-author Rod Cuthbert write in Vacation Rules, a popular guide to vacations that taps into Filep’s research.
That being said, vacations often improve people’s cognitive flexibility—de Bloom’s research has shown that people have a greater variety of ideas after vacation before. So look around—what’s out there in the world that you don’t normally think about or see?
Step 5. Do less, enjoy more
Don’t escape one over-scheduled version of life for another. Filep recommends keeping itineraries reasonabe “rather than mindlessly trying to tick off boxes.” Some people need to be moving at all times, but most of us are happier lingering a while. “Rather than trying to go to Venice, Milan, and Rome, you could go to one of those places and process things a little more,” says Filep. Tons of research has shown that, in the long term, experiences contribute more to happiness than things, so it’s worth it to try to optimize them—even if that means scaling back initially.
None of this is foolproof, of course. There’s no formula for a perfect vacation. But follow these steps and your odds of actually making a great escape from life will be that much better.