Going on Vacation

June 29, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

With the coming of summer many of us will be taking vacations. Vacations can certainly be positive times, although they often have their challenges as well. To begin with, getting to where we are planning to go can be difficult. If we’re driving, we often have traffic to deal with, which may slow us down, and there are the actions of other drivers that we often have to deal with as well. If we’re traveling with children, they may become impatient, and ask the classic question “Are we there yet?” Traveling by plane also has its challenges, often with plenty of opportunities to practice waiting. Waiting in line to check in, waiting in line to go through security, waiting to board the plane, waiting for the delayed flight crew, waiting for the weather delay, waiting for… All of these are opportunities to practice present moment awareness, to notice how we may be experiencing whatever is happening in the moment. It can be challenging at times to not be reactive, to wish that things were different than they are at the moment. And yet here we are, and once we are aware of our present moment experience we have a choice. We can choose our response, perhaps accepting things as they are, or at least treating others with kindness (the TSA agent, the airline representative) if we decide to try to change what is happening.

There is of course a positive side to vacations as well, or why would we put so much effort into taking them? We may have the opportunity to spend time with family and friends, we can pursue activities we enjoy, or perhaps see new places or try new things. We can practice being aware of all of these in the moment, taking time to notice and appreciate them as they happen. We can also be aware of any tendencies we might have to wish things were different, or to be doing other things like worrying about work or checking our e-mail. Each time we notice where our attention is we have a choice- do we want to continue wishing things were different or thinking about something else, or do we want to really pay attention to what we are engaged in at the moment? In their article “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, Killingsworth and Gilbert reported on a large scale study of 2250 people who reported what they were doing repeatedly throughout the day. They found that the participants were happier when their minds were not wandering than when they were, regardless of what type of activity they were engaged in (Science 2010;330:932).

There is also evidence that buying experiences results in greater improvements in well-being than buying things. Dunn, Gilbert and Wilson have identified three reasons for this. The first is that we adapt to having new things very quickly. Once we’ve bought something, it quickly becomes the new normal, and it’s no longer new. The second reason is that we anticipate and remember experiences for much longer times than we remember things. The third reason is that experiences are more likely to be shared with other people, and relationships with others can be one of our greatest sources of happiness. (If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2011; 21: 115-125).

So when it comes to vacations, we can potentially maximize the experience by noticing but not reacting to challenges as they arise, by really paying attention to being on vacation while we’re on vacation, and by recognizing that whatever costs have gone into making the experience possible, they are likely to pay dividends for a long time. Even vacations that may seem like they are not the best experiences at the time may turn out to be the source of many enjoyable recollections in the future, like the time our family went to London and spent a night in what my kids still refer to as the worst hotel ever, with no air-conditioning, in the middle of the worst heat wave in decades. And the room had a glass-walled shower in the middle- we still wonder what that was for. So enjoy your vacation, come what may. One thing is for sure- it will be an experience.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings