British Columbia

How to be happy on vacation

Psychology professor and happiness expert offers tips on how to be happy on vacation.

Elizabeth Dunn has studied the effects that vacations have on our happiness

Our expert says that preparing for a vacation helps the overall experience. (Shutterstock)

So you've been waiting for months and now you're finally packing your bags, and heading on vacation. Excitement is brewing as you imagine yourself on that white sandy beach. Who doesn't love a vacation?

But you might be surprised to learn the best time of your vacation may be before it actually happens.

Elizabeth Dunn is the happiness columnist with The Early Edition, a psychology professor and the director of UBC's Happy Lab. She says that the biggest "happiness boost" happens before we even step on the plane.

Which makes sense when you think about the vast amount of planning that goes into a trip and the inevitable excitement. Dunn says it's that excitement, that anticipation which drives our happiness.

"Anticipation turns out to be a really valuable source of happiness because we can imagine how great our vacation is going to be, unconstrained by the reality of how it actually turns out," she says.


So what happens when all that anticipation and hype lets you down when you arrive at your destination? 

Dunn says you should put extra thought into make that first day extra enjoyable. This is because "our minds tend to gravitate towards the very beginning of a vacation."

This could be treating yourself on the first day to the spa, or a fancy restaurant, or even booking a more expensive hotel on the first night. Aside from being an extra gift to yourself, it can also give you something to fantasize about on a long plane ride.

To plan or not to plan

You find a great deal on a flight to Cuba, grab your partner, take time off work and head out the next day. Or maybe you plan for weeks and weeks, deciding  every detail of the trip, including where you will eat every meal.

"Spontaneity sounds really cool and it can be fun, but i would argue that when we take a spontaneous vacation compared to one that we've planned for awhile, we may actually miss out on some of those free benefits that anticipation provides," Dunn says.

She says that that the act of planning the vacation provides you with pleasure and when your vacation ends up how you planned, it's even better.

When things turn bad...

Something almost always goes wrong on vacation. Sometimes hotels and accommodations aren't ready on time. It rains the whole time. It's too hot. You get food poisoning, get lost. You get injured.

"Having a little bit of a bad experience at some point in the trip isn't likely to to bring down people's overall sense of satisfaction with the vacation," Dunn says.

Of course, there are some things that can ruin your trip. Dunn was attacked by a shark while on a surfing trip in Hawaii.

"Anything short of a shark attack in my opinion is probably not going to have too big of an impact on your overall feelings of pleasure with that vacation."

Adventure or beach?

It's really a personal preference when it come to vacations. Some people like  fast-paced interesting, culture- filled vacations; the kind of vacations you come back from with great stories. Others prefer to simply lounge on the beach or by the pool.

Dunn says be careful when planning. It can get complicated when you and your travel partner have different ideas of how you want your vacation to turn out.

To hear the full interview click: How to be happy on vacation