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The traveler’s challenge: overcoming vacation blues

After months of working 40+ hour weeks, running the kids from one activity to the next, and managing a household, the time has arrived: vacation. You’ve carefully planned a week-long getaway at a seaside resort, and can think of nothing better than basking in the sun, reading a novel, and sipping a cocktail.

You arrive with eager anticipation. The beach is perfect, the resort restful and luxurious. And yet, after just a couple of days, you find your joy diminishing. Your thoughts drift off to work projects left unfinished. You feel antsy in your beach chair. The vast ocean ceases to amaze you, and free-flowing cocktails have lost their allure.

While you may have scouted out the perfect location for your must-needed vacation, you didn’t do any kind of mental or emotional planning. You didn’t take into account some fundamental truths about human psychology. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about travel: that merely putting yourself in a wonderful location will make you feel wonderful.

There are a lot of possible reasons why this trip is disappointing. For one, there’s hedonic adaptation, the pernicious process through which pretty much everything, good and bad, loses its emotional power over time. Because we can forget this fact, you may have simply overestimated your ability to savor and appreciate a beautiful but unchanging scene. When it comes to appreciation of the static, unchanging present, your internal psychological makeup is working against you. It’s in your nature to adapt to your surroundings. It’s actually good for you. Imagine how distracted you would be if you were constantly marveling at all the nice but unimportant things in your everyday environment, like the pretty photo on the wall, the perfect temperature of the room, or the hardwood floors polished to a glossy shine. It’s just not feasible, practical, or wise. Yet we fail to realize the extent to which it happens, especially when we’re in a new and exotic place.

“Recent research has found that idleness – the kind that comes from, say, sitting on a beach – creates the opportunity for a certain type of fruitless and harmful self-reflection.”

Another reason is that you could be putting too much pressure on yourself to relax and have fun. The constant monitoring of emotional states (“Am I happy right now? Is this as fun as I expected?”) combined with the pressure to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime event detracts from the simple pleasure of the moment. If you consider all the time and money that goes into a trip, plus the knowledge that your time in the place is limited and the general belief that vacation time must be fun time, you have a recipe for incredibly high expectations and a whole lot of pressure. Recent research has found that idleness – the kind that comes from, say, sitting on a beach – creates the opportunity for a certain type of fruitless and harmful self-reflection.

What can you do to prevent your vacation from losing its allure? In the planning phases, ask yourself: what will I get adapted to? Can you really marvel at a beach for hours on end? Draw on past experience to help you find your answer.

Also, ask yourself: do you put pressure on yourself to have fun and be happy, especially in pricey and privileged situations? (If vacations are rare for you, also think about special occasions like holidays, fancy meals out, and weddings.) Realize how counterproductive this is. And realize, too, that immersive, absorbing activities might be a powerful antidote to this mindset.

Also, consider the fact that the resort and beach can be made better when supplemented and contrasted with other types of activities. We prefer variety more than we realize, it seems, especially when looking back on our experiences. Plan to have some engaging activity: a cooking class, a language class, hiking, birding, kite-surfing, fly-fishing. Look on online for ideas and things to do in your destination. Look for an intriguing activity that may be challenging enough to absorb your attention, but not so challenging that you feel unsafe or anxious. Book it ahead of time. Then go find your flow, lose track of time, and let your attention be absorbed in activity. And then that beach chair will be all the more welcoming.

Featured image credit: “man-standing-on-brown-rocking-mountain-under-blue-sky-and-yellow-sunlight” by Stocksnap. CC0 public domain via Pexels.

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