Monique Keiran: Vacation joy is often in the anticipation

A friend started a long-planned vacation last week. I interrupted her last-minute preparations with a phone call to wish her a happy and safe journey.

“You must be really looking forward to this.”

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“Umm, yes, now I am.”

“Just now?”

“You know, I’d booked the essentials almost a year ago, but I haven’t thought about it much since. With everything that’s been going on, I just haven’t had the time.”

Alas for my friend, in neglecting to nurture anticipation for her vacation, she has cheated herself out of some key holiday-related happiness. Psychologists have been trying to nail down the effects of vacations on emotional well-being for years.

The verdict to date is that taking vacations boosts a person’s overall level of happiness only slightly and only over the very short term. However, a person can engineer an early jump in vacation gladness — they can extend the holiday-happiness window — if they consciously feed their anticipation for the getaway.

The feeding of and caring for vacation anticipation can include anything from researching destinations and planning routes, to determining which sights, activities and events to participate in. It also involves imagining oneself on the holiday — escaping mentally on vacation before the event itself occurs.

Ah! Lazy summer days by the lake, with nothing more pressing to do than swing in the hammock and read the latest by Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith. Or, breathtaking views of B.C.’s coastal peaks as you hike Strathcona Park. Or the tastes and scents of hot earth and drying herbs at the back of your throat as you cycle the Cowichan Valley wine route.

In fact, anticipation could be the surest holiday-happiness generator, as vacation reality might not equal vacation expectation. As we have all experienced, going places can be tiresome and tedious, with hassles with air travel, ferry delays at Swartz Bay or traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway that launches the weekend trip up-Island with an unpleasant mind-numbing crawl.

All is not lost in the holiday-happiness stakes for my friend, however. Provided she remains open and adaptable to new and possibly unexpected experiences, provided she seizes the moment and lives in it, too, provided the activities — or lack thereof — she engages in suit her temperament, she can still reap her full complement of getaway enjoyment.

Also, if she leaves concern for work behind, keeps her thoughts from straying to the work piling up, ever higher, in her absence, and never, ever checks her work email, her holiday happiness will likely remain high for the full duration of her escape.

For those are the ways by which we most frequently sabotage enjoyment and happiness while on holiday. We pack too much baggage by way of worry and work, and overlook the requirements of our own, individual temperaments and needs.

My friend can also extend her window of holiday-happiness by recalling her getaway in the days, weeks and months afterward.

However, when she returns and regales me with those happy travel tales, she must avoid probing into just what it was about her experience that made her happy. According to a study out of the University of Alberta, when we talk about our feelings about a vacation, we reduce those feelings. Analyzing an emotional experience reduces the emotions, be they positive or negative, of the event.

On the other hand, if her trip busts up, I’ll know what to do. I’ll have her over, open a bottle of wine and help her dissect her disappointment and any other negative feelings about her holiday experience.

Not that the necessity of such an intervention seems likely. According to her latest Facebook posts, my friend is having an awesome time. The journey was painless, the accommodation is pleasing, the company is congenial, the mosquitoes are few and she’s balancing stimulating adventure with sufficient lazy days to recuperate.

May all of us be so lucky on our own vacations through the rest of the summer. Happy travels, before, during and after you hit the road.

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