The study of happiness is aimed at understanding how to live a fulfilling and meaningful life, but it can also deliver dividends for those times when we break from the ordinary and take a vacation.
Vacations are often fraught with expectations and self-created pressures, from feeling that you're not doing enough to worrying that you're spending too much money. But applying the science of happiness -- or the study of positive psychology -- to travel can help consumers sidestep some of those pitfalls, according to Jaime Kurtz, the author of the new book "The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations." ($19.95, Oxford University Press.)
"I realized I wasn't having as much fun as I thought I should be because I was worrying too much about money, or putting too much pressure on myself to have fun," said Kurtz, associate professor of psychology at James Madison University, who has visited more than two dozen countries and 45 of the 50 U.S. states.
"The irony is that I study happiness," she said. Her experiences and work prompted her to wonder, "Maybe a lot of other people have that problem as well."
There's a lot at stake, given that the typical overseas trip can set families back by thousands of dollars. Americans who decide to take a staycation may feel even more stress to enjoy their time off, yet get trapped in an everyday cycle of chores and routines, which isn't exactly relaxing. About half of Americans told an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that they won't be taking a vacation this summer because they can't afford it.
Crafting an enjoyable staycation may be slightly more challenging, but can be just as rewarding as long as consumers are willing to view their hometown in a new light. Kurtz recommends asking yourself what you would want to do in your home town if you were moving to a new community in 30 days. In other words, focus on places you love or haven't yet visited, whether that's a new hiking trail or a new restaurant.
Below are five tips gleaned from Kurtz's research about how to approach money and vacations to maximize satisfaction.
Pay upfront for as much as you can. Traveling is about "monetizing fun," Kurtz said. But being reminded of what you are paying can take the joy out of a vacation. Instead, she recommends paying for as much as possible before the trip begins, such as through package deal vacations. Consider booking special events, such as theater tickets, in advance, which takes away the sting of paying during the trip itself.
Save your blow-out event for the last day. "Your overall trip will be affected by how it ends," Kurtz said. Research has shown that the last portion of an experience leaves a lasting impression, so she recommends saving up a splurge for the final day of a trip.
Ask these questions before buying a souvenir. Scarcity is a major motivation for purchases, which may explain why so many travelers come back with souvenirs they never look at again. If you are afraid of never having a chance of buying that hand-knitted sweater again, you might be tempted to hand over money. To avoid that trap, Kurtz recommends asking if you'd still buy the object if it was in your local mall. Also ask yourself if it's tied to a special memory or emotion, or if it's made by local artisans. If it's mass produced, you are better off skipping it.
Don't automatically pick the cheapest option. Convenience costs money, which is why hotels in central locations typically cost more than those in the outskirts. It might be tempting to save money by picking a less centrally located hotel, for example, but you may be ignoring hidden costs such as the cost to travel into the city center. On top of being aware of hidden costs, consider how less expensive options may impact your time. A cheaper flight with two layovers may be easy on your credit card, but in reality could leave you tired and irritable by the time you reach your destination.
Consider a few splurges in a staycation. First, plan your staycation because otherwise the chances are you'll get stuck in your old routine. But also consider adding a few splurges. Vacations away from home are relaxing in part because you don't have to clean or cook. Consider adding that to your staycation, if it's within your budget. "If you have the means to hire a cleaning person or do the lawn so you can sit on your deck and have a drink and watch someone do the lawn, that would be pretty nice," Kurtz added.