Vacations | Hidden Brain Summer vacations often take time, energy and money to plan. Expectations can run unreasonably high. This week, we dive into what social science research says about how to have a better getaway.

What Science Says About Taking A Great Vacation

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. It's summertime, so we felt we had to start our show with a scene from the iconic summer vacation movie, where, in the 1980s, the Griswolds are packed into their station wagon. It's pouring rain. Everything has gone wrong. They're on this disastrous road trip to a moose-centric theme park. The wife and kids suggest that it's perhaps time to just go home.


DANA BARRON: (As Audrey Griswold) I don't want to be in the car anymore. I want to go home.

BEVERLY D'ANGELO: (As Ellen Griswold) Clark, under the circumstances, I wouldn't mind if we just went home.

VEDANTAM: But the dad, Chevy Chase, has other ideas.


CHEVY CHASE: (As Clark Griswold) We're 10 hours from the fun park, and you want to bail out. Well, I'll tell you something - this is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm going to have fun, and you're going to have fun. We're all going to have so much [expletive] fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles. (Laughter) I've got to be crazy. I'm on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose.


VEDANTAM: Summer vacations - we wait for them all year. We pour time, energy and money into planning them. Expectations run unreasonably high. Coming up, a summer edition of Stopwatch Science - how to plan a vacation, what vacations can reveal about your stock portfolio and why vacations can be bad for your waistline.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: If you're like me, Shankar, vacations bring to mind two words - creeping obesity.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm joined now by Daniel Pink. He's the author of several books about human behavior. But on our show, as you know, his title is senior Stopwatch Science correspondent. Welcome, Dan.

PINK: Thank you, Shankar. It's great to be here.

VEDANTAM: All right, so on Stopwatch Science, Dan and I give one another 60 seconds to summarize interesting social science research. As we approach the one-minute mark, our producers will bring up the music - sometimes gently, sometimes loudly - to let us know our time is running out. Our topic today is vacations. This week we'll tell you why it's so important to take one and how to get the most out of your vacation. You know, Dan, whenever I'm with you, I actually feel like I'm on vacation.

PINK: Ah, is that why you're in a swimsuit?


VEDANTAM: Exactly.

PINK: All righty, all right, all right, all right, let's do some science.

VEDANTAM: All right, Dan, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: Shankar, everyone here at NPR headquarters knows that you're an upstanding citizen who never, ever would use his work computer for personal tasks.

VEDANTAM: They do?

PINK: But some people aren't as scrupulous as you. And when it comes to vacation planning, that might be costing them. Wei Zhang of Iowa State University an Ajay Kalra of Rice University looked at a large trove of data from an online hotel reservation site. They found that people who booked leisure travel during work hours selected higher-quality hotels than those who booked during non-work hours.

But once the vacation was over, those making reservations from the office ended up less satisfied with their hotel choice. Now, it's not clear exactly what's going on here, but one explanation seems plausible. When we're at work, we're more likely to be stressed out and depleted and therefore less likely to be vigilant. So instead of pushing hard to find a great deal, we settle for an OK deal that we later regret. Whatever the reason, though, the message is clear - don't shop for travel at work.

VEDANTAM: So let me understand this correctly. They're saying that because people are stressed out and busy or maybe especially in need of a vacation when they're at work, they go online. They see something really snazzy, interesting, beautiful, and they say, yeah, I'm going to buy that. But then, when they actually go there, they find that if they had shopped around for another 10 minutes, they could have found something that was actually a better deal.

PINK: Right, but we have only one deal here on Stopwatch Science. And that's a deal that involves 60 seconds. And those 60 seconds begin right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, when we think about great vacations, we often think about going to unusual places - maybe going to a place that few other people have gone. Maybe you're already doing this. You're listening to this podcast right now on a beach in Tahiti. One advantage of unusual vacations is that we can then post pictures on Facebook or come home and tell our friends all about our amazing vacation. Now, since they haven't been to these wonderful locales, they will be eager listeners for our stories, right?

PINK: So we think.

VEDANTAM: No, they won't. Gus Cooney and Dan Gilbert at Harvard along with Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia find that when people have amazingly unique experiences, they're often less happy afterward. Why? Your friends don't want to hear you drone on about getting on that Space X flight. They're talking to each other about the block party in the neighborhood that you missed, so you feel socially isolated. Social isolation matters more to your happiness than your vacation destination.

PINK: This is very interesting. So how did they do this? Did they send one group of people to the Caribbean and another group to the banks of the Olentangy River in central Ohio?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) They both sound pretty exotic to me, Dan. But, no, that's not what they did. This was a social psychology experiment, which means it was done on the cheap. What they did is they brought in volunteers into a laboratory and they sat the majority of them down together to watch a very mediocre movie. And they sat one person down to watch an absolutely fantastic, riveting movie.

And then they put the whole group together to talk. And the person who'd watched the amazing movie wanted to talk about the amazing movie that he or she had watched, but of course, none of the others had seen the amazing movie, and they didn't really want to talk about it. They wanted to talk about what a silly experiment this was. The others bonded with each other, and the person who watched the great movie ended up feeling isolated.

PINK: I see. And so how does this play into this idea that experiences are more valuable to us than goods?

VEDANTAM: That's interesting because there is a lot of research showing that experiences are more valuable than things when you're buying yourself gifts. But I've actually come by recent work, Dan, that actually finds that the reason experiences are often better than things as gifts is that experiences are inherently often social. If you're going on an experience and actually enjoying it entirely by yourself, it's not clear that it actually is much better than just buying yourself a new television set or a new car. It's the social aspect of experiences that makes them better.

PINK: This is why when I do Stopwatch Science by myself at home, it's no fun.


VEDANTAM: All right, speaking of unique and extraordinary experiences, Dan, I hope your next 60 seconds doesn't leave me feeling socially isolated.

PINK: OK, if you're like me, Shankar, vacations bring to mind two words - creeping obesity. That's the medical concept for what happens to many of us in middle age. We don't become overweight overnight. Instead, we gain a pound or two each year. And before long, that person in the mirror looks a little different. Well, according to a recent paper in the journal Physiology and Behavior, our vacations could be part of the problem.

These researchers studied 122 adults who'd gone on vacations of between one and three weeks. They find that these folks each gained nearly a pound on vacation and that the extra weight was still there 6 weeks later. Now, the reason is intriguing. Turns out people are more physically active on vacation, so inactivity wasn't the cause. The real culprit was that vacationers increased their calorie consumption in excess of their activity, especially in the form of alcohol.

VEDANTAM: Oh yeah, of course.

PINK: So if you want to avoid weight gain while on holiday, try to drink less. Although that might be tough if you're on a family vacation.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) So this makes total sense to me, Dan. I often feel that I'm significantly more active when I'm on vacations, but I have noticed that I don't lose weight while I'm on vacations. And it's probably because I'm just eating and drinking more.

PINK: Right, and especially the drinking part. This - this paper showed something like a doubling in alcohol consumption during the weeks that people are away. So they're living it up, but they're paying for it later in creeping obesity. So speaking of creeping, your moment has crept to us right now. And your 60 seconds begins right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, vacations can be fun. They can be relaxing. But they can also be very useful signals. Think about your own behavior. If you're the boss of a company and you're on vacation, is your company likely to make big moves that rock the boat? Not likely. Or let's say you're the boss and things are falling apart at work. Now, you might have to cancel your vacation to deal with the crisis. In other words, paying attention to when the boss goes on vacation can be a market signal.

PINK: Interesting.

VEDANTAM: David Yermack at NYU tracked when CEOs go on vacation by merging records of corporate jet flights and where CEOs of various companies are known to have vacation properties. He finds that CEOs are more likely to go on vacation right after their companies announce good news.

And he also finds that stock prices for a company are less volatile when the CEO is on break. In other words, if you and I were running a hedge fund, Dan, we might want to keep better track of which CEOs are hitting the beach this summer and which ones are canceling their travel plans.

PINK: Yeah, this is a great study. This is really interesting. So do you think that investors, funds are actually using this kind of information to make bets on companies?

VEDANTAM: I think they might be, except it probably isn't easy to come by all the information that David Yermack pulled together. It's also probably the case that the signal is a small signal. So the only way to really be successful at this is if you apply the strategy over a very, very lengthy period of time.

And in the long-run, the law of averages will work in your favor. Now, the law of averages don't necessarily work in your favor on Stopwatch Science because we have only 60 seconds to pull things off. And your next 60 seconds, Dan, starts right now.

PINK: Vacations can recharge the mind and replenish the soul. But once we're back on the job, how long do the positive effects last? Two German psychologists tackled that question in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The researchers chose a profession with lots of stress and high burnout rates - teachers. They had teachers fill out questionnaires the day before a two-week vacation, and then three more times after the vacation had ended and they were back on the job.

First, the good news - when the teachers returned to the classroom after their break, they were more engaged in their jobs and significantly less emotionally exhausted. The vacation worked. Now, the less-good news - that positive boost faded away after only about four weeks. A month after returning to work, they were generally back to their pre-vacation levels of engagement and exhaustion.

Now, we can't leap to universal conclusions here. Maybe there's something unique about teachers or Germans. But if the benefits of time off do fade out so quickly, perhaps we should all be taking more vacations.

VEDANTAM: There's something terribly sad about that story, Dan, because it really suggests that we have these dreams about what vacations will do. And even when those dreams come true, what you're saying is that the effects are likely to be very short-lived.

PINK: That's what it seems like. And you know what? We've seen that before in other areas. If you look at weight, generally people return to what's called their set point of weight. And, you know, they might lose some here, gain some here. But in general, they return to that set point.

Even if you look at this measure of subjective well-being, how happy we are, you know, what? Something really bad happens to you, it drops. Something really great happens to you, it goes up. But then it returns to that same level.

VEDANTAM: Which sort of leads to the question of, actually, what's the point of taking a vacation at all if you're going to come back to who you are at the end of it? Maybe you should just stay home.

PINK: Maybe you should just stay at work and just keep working and working and working until you grind yourself into full despair and don't even hit your set point. That's a great suggestion. I'm sure our listeners would love it. I'm hoping that your next one is a little bit more uplifting, Shankar. Your 60 seconds start right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, we did a podcast episode recently about Alaska, looking at climate change. I went there on vacation with my family recently. And when you're in Alaska, Dan, with all those mountains and glaciers and vast, open spaces, you can't help but notice that you're a very, very small animal on a very, very big planet.

Now, we've all felt this. You've looked up at the sky on a dark night. You've seen the Milky Way, or you listened to a beautiful piece of music. You feel a sense of majesty, a sense of awe. Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner and many other researchers have found that awe not only does wonderful things for you, but that it helps you do wonderful things for others. Volunteers induced to feel awe act more altruistically, more ethically. They stop thinking of themselves and their problems as bigger or more important than others.

So if you're on vacation right now, whether that's a hike around the neighborhood or a hike around the Grand Canyon, remember that one of the most important things you can do is to let yourself get caught up in the moment. Feel grateful. Feel awe. It's one of the ways vacations can make us better people.

PINK: Interesting. So if you're at that block party rather than the Space X flight, look up in the air, wave to the other guy who's miserable on that Space X, and look at the clouds and just sort of get a sense of awe with your friends and your family.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think so. This is the thing - I think many of us believe that the source of awe is in the things that we're seeing and the things that we're noticing. But in many ways, I think the source of the awe is in ourselves. It's in our ability, our orientation to actually look at the world and appreciate how marvelous it is.

PINK: Yeah. Also, based on that study, I really think that there's a lesson for the Alaska Department of Tourism. They should have a campaign that says welcome to Awe-laska (ph).

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: That's yours, folks in Juneau, for the taking.

VEDANTAM: So there's some marketing advice from Dan Pink. And there you have it. Book your next vacation at home. Pick the neighborhood block party over the Space X flight. Drink less while you're on vacation. Try to keep that vacation bliss going a little longer after you get back, perhaps by soaking up lots of awe-inspiring moments. Finally, if any of you see Dan Pink hastily cancel his vacation plans at the last minute, you can be fairly confident that the HIDDEN BRAIN hedge fund that we run together is about to tank. Dan, thank you for joining me.

PINK: It's always a pleasure.


VEDANTAM: This episode of hidden brain was produced by Max Nesterak and Chris Benderev and edited by Jenny Schmidt. Our staff also includes Maggie Penman and Kara McGuirk-Allison. We should also say it's Max's last week with us at HIDDEN BRAIN before he moves on to a new job in public radio.

Many of you loved our recent episode featuring Max's effort to quit smoking. He's promised to keep us posted on how that goes. We're going to miss you, Max. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen to my stories on your local public radio station. If you like this episode, give us a review. It helps. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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