American workers are notoriously lousy at taking time off. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of employees with paid time off did not use all of their allotted days. Yes, vacations are good for you. But balancing work and school schedules can be tricky, and jet-setting is not typically within the average family’s budget.
But “a few days at home could bring more happiness than some far-flung adventure,” said Jaime Kurtz, a professor of psychology at James Madison University and author of “The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations.” She added that a summer staycation could feel every bit as joyful and restorative as a journey elsewhere.
“There are fewer expectations,” she said. “There’s less room for disappointment. And you don’t have all of those logistical hassles that can derail you.”
Here are some tips to help you get that vacation feeling while taking time off at home.
Be deliberate about your mind-set.
Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a professor of marketing at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most,” has studied how people can get the benefits of a vacation from a typical weekend.
In a 2020 study, she and her colleagues split a group of workers into two groups: One was instructed to spend a weekend like any other; the other was asked to treat the weekend like a vacation. (They were left to interpret what, specifically, that meant to them.)
“What we found is that those whom we had instructed to treat the weekend like a vacation were significantly happier when they were back at work on Monday than those who treated it like a regular weekend,” Dr. Holmes said. People in the vacation group also said they had enjoyed the weekend more.
Notably, people in the vacation group didn’t make sweeping changes in what they did, Dr. Holmes said — they didn’t spend a lot more money, or spend less time on their phones. Instead, it seemed to boil down to a shift in their mind-set.
“How do you make it so that if you’re staying in your house, you don’t just use it as an opportunity to get all of your chores done and catch up on work, but instead actually experience it like the staycation — like the break — that it is?” she asked. “It does require this labeling.”
It can help to think of your time at home as scarce, said Dr. Kurtz, who has studied how that can increase well-being. On a seven-day trip to Europe, for example, people tend to feel a sense of urgency to get out, explore and squeeze everything they can from their time, she said. Before a staycation, she recommends asking: “If I were moving away soon, what would I most want to do, and who would I most want to spend time with?”
It’s just a “little mental flip,” Dr. Kurtz said, but one that “can make the time feel precious.”
Figure out what you crave from travel and try to recreate it.
Sahara Rose De Vore, the founder and chief executive of the Travel Coach Network, said that much of her work as a travel coach involved helping people figure out what kinds of experiences, feelings or changes they are looking for. She recommends asking a similar question before a staycation: What can I bring into my home that can help give me those feelings?
For instance, if you love to travel because it lets you explore new cultures, perhaps you spend a few days cooking recipes from other parts of the world, Ms. De Vore said. If all you want from your vacation is to be by the ocean or out in nature, is there a local park you can explore?
Keep in mind that there are “three buckets” that tend to be linked to happiness, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
“One is connection,” she said. “The second is giving, or contributions to society — anything you do that makes you feel like you are having a meaningful impact. The third is personal growth.”
So consider prioritizing experiences that fit into one (or more) of those categories: Take a hike with a friend, she said, or sign up for a cooking or language class. Maybe spend a few hours helping out a neighbor or try something out of your comfort zone. If you are spending your break with kids in tow, perhaps alternate who chooses activities so everyone has something to enjoy.
Look forward to your staycation and reminisce about it afterward.
Numerous studies have shown that anticipation can help reduce stress, and that people are often happier before a trip than they are during it. So do what you can to heighten your sense of anticipation, Dr. Lyubomirsky said. Simple strategies like writing down one thing you’re looking forward to on the next day can help.
Dr. Lyubomirsky noted another theory, called the “peak end” rule, that suggests people tend to judge an experience based on its high point, as well as on how it ended. “You don’t want to have an experience and immediately forget about it,” Dr. Lyubomirsky said.
She suggested jotting down a few thoughts about something you particularly enjoyed or something new you learned, or simply looking back over any photos you took during your break in order to hold onto that post-vacation magic a little bit longer.
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