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Because it’s, well, 2020, we haven’t done much traveling, whether to visit the grandparents or go on a weekend road trip for one of the kids’ sports things. So the last few weeks, we’ve been living vicariously through the Griswolds’ various vacations in the classic National Lampoon series of movies. Culminating in the recent reboot (which I thought was hilarious even if Rotten Tomatoes says I’m 73% wrong).

Of course, if you remember anything about these movies, you’ll recall that the word “vacation” is probably not the best word to describe what they were. As in, these are the sort of vacations, where everything goes so wrong, and the whole experience is so stressful, that you need a whole other vacation to recover from it when you get home.

Griswolds aside, the research suggests that vacations really are a good thing. And that when done right, they really do lead to increases in happiness when we return to work and resume our normal daily routine.

So what are we to do when we can’t take a normal vacation? Do “staycations” provide us with the same positive benefits? Or is there some other way to gain the mental and emotional benefits of a vacation, and recharge our batteries, when the traditional vacation is just not in the cards for the moment?

A mini-vacation?

Well, a team of researchers at UCLA (West et al., 2020) observed that technically speaking, we all actually have a mini-vacation built into our normal weekly schedule.

The weekend!

Of course, most of us don’t generally see or approach the weekend as a vacation. And when researchers have looked at the effect of weekends on mood, they haven’t seen that normal post-vacation boost in mood or increase in happiness, when people return to work on Monday (Helliwell & Wang, 2014).

So why is that?

Is a weekend just too short? Or are our weekend routines, just too…routine?

A vacation study

To see if they could find out what it is about vacations that creates that boost in happiness, the researchers recruited 441 participants, ranging in age from 20 to 72 years old.

On Friday, they measured everyone’s baseline level of happiness on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (a lot), by asking them to rate the degree to which they were feeling “happiness and enjoyment,” “stress and worry,” and “satisfied.”

Then, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups.

Two groups

One group (the vacation group), was given the instructions: “Treat this weekend like a vacation. That is, to the extent possible, think in ways and behave in ways as though you were on vacation.”

The other group (the control group), was given the instructions: “Treat this weekend like a regular weekend. That is, to the extent possible, think in ways and behave in ways you normally would on a weekend.”

And on Monday…

On Monday, when they returned to work, they all took a follow-up survey, exactly like Friday’s to see if there were any changes in their levels of happiness.

They were also asked to take a short 7-question mindfulness assessment, to give the researchers a sense of how the two groups may have experienced the weekend differently.

Specifically, the researchers were curious to see how present and fully engaged in the present moment the two different groups were over the course of the weekend.

So they asked the participants to rate their weekend experience on a scale of 1 (almost never) to 6 (almost always) using the following prompts:

  1. “I found it difficult to stay focused on what was happening in the present”
  2. “I seemed to be ‘running on automatic’ without much awareness of what I was doing”
  3. “I was so focused on the goal I wanted to achieve that I lost touch with what I was doing in the moment”
  4. “I found myself preoccupied with the future or the past”
  5. “I found it difficult to pay attention to the ‘here and now’”
  6. “I rushed through activities without really being attentive to them”
  7. “I focused on the present moment”

So what happened? Was one group any happier than the other on Monday? And were there any differences between the groups in terms of how they experienced their weekend?

Vacationers vs. non-vacationers

Well, as you can probably guess, the vacationers went back to work on Monday feeling happier than the non-vacationers.

They not only reported higher scores on their levels of happiness, enjoyment, and satisfaction, but they had lower scores on stress and worry too, compared to the non-vacationers.

So apparently, approaching the weekend as if it were a vacation, does seem to make people happier than if they approach it like a regular old weekend.

But why????

What is it about that simple set of instructions – “treat this weekend like a vacation” – that changed their experience of the weekend?

Like, what did the vacationers actually do that led them to feel measurably happier on Monday?

Did they just ignore the dishes, let the grass grow for an extra week, turn their phones off, or go someplace new? Maybe they splurged and spent way more money?

What did the vacationers do differently?

Actually, no. For the most part, people did the same things they normally do on a weekend. They went shopping, did some cooking, used their phones, watched TV, took naps, socialized, exercised, etc., etc.

Ok, fine – there was a tendency to do ever so slightly less housework and work, but not dramatically less. We’re talking a couple percentage points here. Like, the non-vacationers spent 7% of the weekend doing housework, while the vacationers spent 4.5% of the weekend doing housework. And regardless, these small differences in how they spent their time didn’t seem to have a significant effect on how they felt on Monday.

And no, it’s not like there was much of a difference in how much money they spent over the weekend either.

So if it wasn’t any of these things, what the heck was it that led to the vacationers change in happiness?!

Being present

Going into the study, the researchers suspected that mindfulness – i.e. being present, and actually paying more attention to what you’re doing in each moment instead of just going through the motions – might be a key factor in the vacation-mood equation.

After all, there’s a good bit of other research out there (e.g., Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010) which suggests that we are much happier when we’re fully engaged in the present moment, than when our mind is wandering and we’re in zombie mode (you can read more about this here: A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy One).

Vacation mindset

And indeed, the vacationers’ mindfulness scores were significantly different than those of the non-vacationers. 

Specifically, the vacationers appeared to go through their weekend, paying more attention to the present moment throughout each day, than the non-vacationers did.

And in their statistical analysis, the researchers found that mindfulness indeed mediated the relationship between how participants approached the weekend, and their happiness on Monday. Which is to say, they found that being present and fully engaged in each moment seemed to be the key factor that facilitated that positive emotional boost during the weekend. Which not only led to a happier weekend, but carried over into the week too, leaving them in a better place on Monday when they returned to work.

So how might this relate to our lives?

Take action

Well, the instructions “Treat this weekend like a vacation. That is, to the extent possible, think in ways and behave in ways as though you were on vacation.” do seem awfully simplistic.

But this also sounds like it could make for a fun experiment, no? Like, what might happen if you take those instructions to heart and try to approach today as if it were a vacation?

I mean, what would you do differently today, and how would you feel about it all, if you actually were on vacation?

For instance, what would your “vacation” breakfast be like today?

What would the “vacation” version of your trip to Target for a bathmat look and feel like?

How would you approach your “vacation” dog walk or bike ride in the park?

And what would your “vacation” version of practicing today look like?

No matter what your “vacation” ends up looking like today, it is National Cocoa Day, so maybe start things off with a nice hot mug of hot chocolate. And while you look out the window, enjoying the view, maybe this moment of happy chocolatey goodness will help to prompt another few ideas about how to spend the rest of your vacation day. =)


References

West, C., Mogilner, C., & DeVoe, S. E. (2020). Happiness From Treating the Weekend Like a Vacation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 194855062091608. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620916080

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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