This is my last day in the office before taking a much-needed holiday (the schools have just gone back in the UK, so this is a good time to go away if you want to avoid the crowds). Holidays are important to me, which is why I was a little surprised to hear on the radio while driving to work yesterday a report claiming that they don't really do us much good, and that as the main pleasure is in the anticipation we may as well book a holiday but cancel it just before rather than actually going away.
As writing about travel and tourism is one of my jobs at CABI as editor of the Leisure Tourism Database, I decided to look into what I'd heard. It seems that the research picked up by the media this week, led by the Daily Mail on 7 September (no doubt to coincide with the return to work for many after the school holidays) is from a paper actually published earlier this year in the journal 'Applied Research in Quality of Life' [doi: 10.1007/s11482-009-9091-9], and the subject of a Springer press release on 18 February.
Dutch academic Jeroen Nawijn, of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, investigated the link between holidays and happiness in 1,530 men and women, of an average age of 50 last summer.
They were asked whether they'd been on holiday in the previous eight weeks. Approximately two-thirds had.
They were then asked how long they'd been away for, how long they'd been back and to rate their current mood. The study found that the people who had been back from their holidays for more than a few days were no happier than they had been a month or two before they went away.
Following a trip, there was no difference between vacationers' and non-vacationers' happiness, unless the time off was very relaxing, in which case the slightly increased happiness was particularly noticeable in the first two weeks back. The effect wore off completely after eight weeks. As the author explains, it is not surprising that trips do not have a prolonged effect on happiness, since most vacationers return to work or other daily tasks and therefore fall straight back into their normal routine fairly quickly.
"People who have a great holiday may start to remember why they're alive, only to be thrown back into the living death known as working life," says cheery clinical psychologist, Oliver James in the Daily Mail.
The study found that much of the benefit from a vacation actually occurs before we go away. People who have holidays booked but had not yet travelled tend to be happier than people who had not gone on holiday.
Nawijn suggests that we can maximise happiness by booking not one long holiday, but several shorter ones, to get the most benefit from anticipation of the break as well as the short period of well-being once it is over.
"The length of the after-effect of a holiday does not seem to be associated with the length of that holiday," he claims. Among the implications of this suggested, are that the school system should be flexible enough to allow families to stagger their trips throughout the year.
I don't think (as the radio presenter I heard yesterday implied) the author is suggesting that we shouldn't go on holiday as we'll get no lasting benefit from it. After all, the same argument could be used about pretty much anything (no point in going for that restaurant meal, theatre trip or party, as a few weeks down the line we'll feel no different from if we hadn't bothered). Something we look forward to, enjoy at the time, and which gives good memories to look back on, is always worth doing, regardless of whether it benefits our mood while sat in the office a month later. And looking on the Leisure Tourism Database I found a couple of other studies suggesting that holidays do in fact increase well-being (Gilbert and Abdullah, 2004: Quinn and Stacey, 2010).
Speaking personally, I'd say that while the effect of a holiday may indeed wear off fairly quickly once back to the daily grind, the prospect of not going away would certainly make me feel pretty unhappy. Maybe the answer is to start planning your next trip as soon as you get back from the last one?