Does planning a trip make you happy?
Planning a trip can be fun under normal circumstances, but two years into a global pandemic, it’s even more enjoyable than usual. I spent a few hours last weekend researching a trip to Italy for the summer that I had wanted to take last year. Florence, Chianti, the Amalfi Coast… I can practically taste the wine and fresh buffalo mozzarella!
Wait, what? Maybe you’re wondering why I would plan a big trip when the next wave of COVID could spike, borders could close, or someone could get sick.
Obviously it’s important to carefully weigh the benefits and risks of travel for yourself and others just before the trip and be flexible with your travel plans. The CDC recommends that no one travel until they are fully vaccinated, so that’s a given, but individual levels of risk tolerance vary based on a variety of factors.
I’ve decided travel planning makes sense for me. Even if you have a lower risk tolerance, though, hear me out. For one thing, many travel-related companies have flexible cancellation policies to fit the unpredictability of the times.
Additionally, and in good news, just planning a trip could give you tangible health and wellbeing benefits, even if you end up having to cancel or postpone your travel. And if you do have to shelve your plans for a while, you can always dust them off in the future.
Why we all need to travel
Frequent travelers report being 7% happier on average than people who don’t travel at all.Travel is fun, educational, and provides a much needed break. Some of the best memories of my life are from trips shared with friends and family. International travel in particular has demonstrated benefits for physical, mental, and emotional health.
When it comes to mental health, a study from the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin found that women who vacation at least twice a year are less likely to suffer from depression and chronic stress than women who vacation only every two years or less. They are also happier in their marriages. The survey didn’t specify whether the vacation was with or without their partners, but it could probably help either way ;-)
Similarly, the Global Commission on Aging found that men who don’t take an annual vacation are at a 20% higher risk of death and 30% higher risk of heart disease compared to men who do.
Researchers suggest that travel also enhances creativity by mixing things up, forcing us out of our comfort zones, and introducing us to new ideas.
What are the psychological benefits of planning your next trip?
There are many psychological benefits to travel planning. We’ve divided them into a few big categories: vacation anticipation, strengthening social connections, and motivating healthy behavior changes.
Speaking of behavior change, I’d recommend getting in the habit of regularly planning your next trip, even if it’s a day trip as opposed to an overseas one. Research and daydreaming about a future trip can even be a fun “road trip” activity if you’re spending many hours as a passenger in a car.
Vacation Anticipation (looking forward to something!)
Looking forward to something is especially helpful when times are hard. According to a study from Cornell, you can experience the benefits of a vacation beforehand through anticipation (in addition to during the vacation itself). To drive the point home, another study from Holland found that travelers experience their highest level of happiness in the weeks and months before the trip.
“In a sense, we start to ‘consume’ a trip as soon as we start thinking about it,” says Matthew Killingsworth, a co-author of the Cornell study. The research also showed that the positive impact of an experience like a trip boosts happiness more than the anticipation of buying material objects.
Because we know it’s a finite experience, we’re more likely to focus intentionally on enjoying and making the most of it, even before the trip actually happens.
Strengthening Social Connections
During the pandemic it’s been easy for me to lose touch with people I don’t see as often as I used to in person. Planning a trip together with physically distant friends or family members is a great way to reconnect and create positive feelings.
So I’ve been planning to coordinate this trip to Italy with some family members, including my brother. Of course, we need to connect about practical things like dates and logistics. But it’s also so much fun to send each other links to potential places to stay and sites to visit.
I have several cousins based outside of the US. We live in different time zones and have diverse interests. But when we last travelled together for one cousin’s wedding in France, we all coordinated through WhatsApp and had lots of conversations and photo sharing sessions before, during, and after the trip itself.
Motivating Healthy Behavior Changes
Is there a better motivator for exercise than an upcoming trip that will require physical exertion, like backpacking, lots of walking, or swimming?
My friend Preston has a vacation planned in Glacier National Park with his brothers later this year. In addition to having fun researching hiking gear and texting his brothers about it, he’s made a point of getting in some extra steps so he’ll be in better shape for the trip.
Similarly, in anticipation of visiting Italy, I am eating better. Honestly, trite though it is, I want to get in better shape if I’m going to be in a bathing suit. And in Italy of all places, where there is such an emphasis on fashion and “la bella figura,” which is about dressing well, good manners, and generally putting care into how you present yourself to the outside world.
If nothing else, planning a trip can help you focus your “down time” entertainment on educational or cultural research as opposed to mindless social media or channel surfing.
It’s time to plan your trip!
Consider this a formal invitation to plan your next trip, even if you can’t be certain it will happen exactly as planned.
What gets you excited? Is there a hobby or culture you want to explore? Or maybe you just need some down time? Get concrete about how you can possibly fit it into your time and budget.
According to Airbnb, there is a growing trend of mixing work and vacation travel, including people bringing their family along on a trip and taking vacation time at the end. This can make a lot of sense economically thanks to savings on tickets or hotel rooms. (My family has done versions of this kind of mixed work-vacation travel in Orlando, Mexico, and Laos.)
Go ahead—put a trip on the calendar and invite some friends or family members to help keep you accountable. Your positive expectations alone may make it feel like a mini vacation!