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Why Vacations Leave Us Unhappy

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

When I found myself reading a book titled "The Happy Traveller: Unpacking The Secrets Of Better Vacations" while waiting for a flight, it became clear that something was wrong. A happy traveller who is truly revelling in his or her imminent holiday will be excitedly chattering away, exchanging itineraries and packing lists. That person was clearly not me.

Problem was, I had no clue to the origin of this unhappiness. As I read on, however, it became apparent that the question was not "How to be happy?" but "Why are you unhappy?". 

The author, professor Jaime L. Kurtz (an associate professor in psychology) traced accounts of her own unhappy vacations. One day, she brought up the topic of "happy travel" to her peers and she "began hearing stories of travel gone wrong from every direction." 

"Clearly, I wasn't alone here," she wrote in the book.

It may sound ridiculous to be upset while on vacations, but it's a trap that some of us do unknowingly stumble into. Kurtz never got round to doing a formal research on this subject. "I really just have anecdotes," she wrote over email. "My strong sense is that travel disappoints more often than we might think." 

There are several possible factors contributing to an unhappy vacation. But first, it's important to note that there are two facets to our psyche in any vacation — the external surroundings such as location, activities, and finances; the internal which includes your psyche and emotional baggage. 

The Excessive Planner

Most of us plan our itineraries in advance, habitually researching for exciting spots and restaurants to visit. This is what Kurtz, in her book, calls "mental simulation," where we project "into a distant time and place of our own creation, envisioning what it will be like". Along with this mental simulation of travel plans is "affective forecasting," where we try to predict how we will feel in a certain situation.

Yet, the catch here is that by researching and looking up images, reviews and video tours, we have experienced the place once. By the time you find yourself in this awe-inspiring cliff, or an amazing river cruise, you're no longer surprised. The planning phase then becomes more exciting than the actual vacation and disappointment overwhelms you. 

The Well-Heeled Traveller

The other catch is what the psychology universe calls a "hedonic adaptation". When you find yourself in a beautiful cafe, luxury hotel and yacht, there is a positive change to your external environment. You imbibe the sights and register them in your mind. Soon after, the greatest of luxuries become normalised.

The ability to counter hedonic adaptation is what will keep travels "fresh and exciting". It, too, happens to be the "chief goal of happiness researchers" — if it doesn't get old, it's still gold.

Hedonic adaptation is linked to another concept called the satisfaction treadmill — a concept coined by psychologist Michael Eysenck in the late 1990s. It's essentially the insatiable pursuit of happiness. When you're in a five-star resort, you long for the six-star. 

There hasn't been conclusive literature on how to avoid the hedonistic adaptation or satisfaction treadmill. Existing advice includes rehearsing thoughts of gratefulness or exploring new travel routines — not the most convincing but the struggle to find an antidote to our generation's lack of contentment speaks a lot about the competitive materialistic worldview that marketing, advertisements, and social media have instilled in our subconscious minds. 

The Psychological Catch

No matter which traveller you are, there is a common set of desire that we all want:  when the physical surroundings change, we expect an equally dramatic internal shift. They, however, don't always match up. It's easy to hop on to a new plane for a new environment but it's a lot tougher to change your internal landscape. So there's a psychological jet-lag — you're in a new country but your mind is still functioning on autopilot as if you were in the office. 

"The psychological baggage we all carry can naturally put a damper on our fun and relaxation. After all, we don't leave our anxieties, irritations, and bad habits behind when we leave home," wrote Kurtz in her book. 

The solution comes in the form of a very annoying catchy phrase: be present. By that, it's not just the meditative act of silencing the noises and distractions in your mind, but take proper measures to induce a change in your psychological routines. 

According to Kurtz, this translates to simple, logical (but often neglected) steps such as finishing up due proposals and projects, setting up "email auto-response telling people that you're away," and informing your inner circle that you'll be unresponsive for a couple of days. This doesn't mean it's unhealthy to bring work along to vacations. In the name of a happier, carefree holiday, it's something worth trying.