Arnie WeissmannLast week, I wrote about a Dutch study that suggests vacations give a very poor return on investment and that the longest period of happiness associated with a trip is before a vacation begins. Not only is anticipation of a trip its highlight, but there is very little residual happiness bounce after returning home. The best one can hope for is a two-week tail of happiness, and that's experienced only by those who described their vacation as "very relaxing."

Shawn Achor, an American psychologist also studying happiness and travel, added a few additional factors that can contribute to a more lasting, positive travel experience: advance planning (at least a month in advance), going a long way from home and making a strong social connection with people while in the destination.

After interviewing Achor, I watched his TED talk. In his presentation, he said that while many psychologists focus on average behavior, declaring the norm to be a benchmark for normal, he likes to study the outlier. Rather than guide a depressed person to "average" happiness, he'd rather prescribe the behavioral patterns that make people far happier than average.

In other words, when he looks at data, he looks for outliers, the flukes whom other behavioral scientists might wish to write off as statistical anomalies.

I see in myself the characteristics of an outlier in three of the four points identified as making most people happy while on vacation.

The first: advance planning. I wish I could claim to plan trips at least a month in advance, but more often than not, my vacation time sneaks up on me, and I'm putting together something at the last minute. (I'm also off the statistical average in that I, rather than my wife, do most of the vacation planning. Such as it is.)

Second, the trips that make me absolutely happiest and provide the longest postholiday bounce have an absolute minimum of relaxation.

I simply do not enjoy sitting around. Or lying on a beach. Or sleeping in while on vacation. What I most enjoy about travel is that it is life accelerated. It can transform us in a surprisingly short amount of time, illuminating our understanding of culture, history, geography and landscapes, art, gastronomy, language and politics. It awakens areas of our brains -- and often, muscles -- we didn't know existed. It makes what is ordinarily inaccessible, accessible, and what is foreign, familiar.

I may be erring in associating relaxation with inactivity, when perhaps a better definition is absence of stress. But even if viewed through that lens, for me the best vacations involve some challenge, and even stress. (Achor suggests that stress in itself is not inherently bad; it's how one reacts to it that affects happiness levels.)

As regards social interaction and happiness, I very much enjoy traveling with my family, meeting local people and having an informed guide. Yet many of my most enjoyable memories result from solo, independent travel in strange places. There's a thrill in exploring and discovering on one's own (to me, travel videos should have a big "spoiler alert" sticker on them).

And when setting out alone in a strange city, one is much more likely to wander into areas that are bypassed by groups or guidebook writers and perhaps have what feels like more authentic experiences with local residents.

To some extent, I recognize that my desire to travel alone is somewhat connected to my not wanting to spend too much time being inactive. The more traveling companions I have, the more likely I am to feel that time's a-wasting while waiting for everyone else to get ready to get going.

If I'm an outlier as regards independent travel, I think the subset of my fellow outliers might have enough scale to have triggered a response from the industry.

Globus' Monograms division, which researcher Achor is helping to promote, is an example of a product that builds in unstructured time, which could be used, one supposes, for relaxing, meeting locals or exploring. It's a hybrid travel experience, which recognizes that groups or families (or couples) comprise people calibrated to different paces and motivated by varying vacation outcomes, within the spectrum of "normal" and without.

After relaxation, advance planning and social connections, the fourth and final factor is distance from home. And here I am right in line with the norm. Except when I'm not.

My last vacation, which I enjoyed very much, contained all the elements I just indicated were not typical of what I think I like. First, it was relatively close. It included a stay on a beach. There were four other people, ranging in age from 11 to 84. It had structured and guided days. Portions were planned well in advance.

The takeaway? Maybe it's that people can't actually define what makes them happy, myself perhaps least of all.

It's what makes travel counseling both challenging and rewarding. And definitely not relaxing.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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