There’s a lot to be said for spontaneity. It allows you to take advantage of opportunities that pop up and opens the door for creativity, flexibility and freshness. But I prefer to operate in planning mode, and I like to anticipate what’s coming up on my calendar. And, according to several scientific studies, I may be happier for it.
More and more, we’re learning that waiting for something—and working hard to get it—gives us pleasure and makes what we purchase feel more valuable. Before cell phones and credit cards enabled us to have almost anything we wanted at any time, the shopping experience felt richer. Studies of consumption and happiness show that not only are people happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, they’re happier when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it.
So, while last-minute vacations might be great for snapping up some deals, they may actually cheat us out of some of the fun. In fact, the happiest part of your vacation most likely occurs way before you ever step foot in your destination.
Looking ahead brings more joy than looking back
According to a 2010 psychological study about the connection between anticipation and happiness that was published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it. The authors of the study, researchers from the Netherlands, interviewed 1,530 people, including 974 vacationers, and found that the vacationers felt most happy before their trips.
Travel, of course, can sometimes go hand in hand with complications: flight delays, lost luggage, illness, or disagreements with companions. Then, when you get home, you have to catch up on all the work you missed. Pre-trip happiness, however, is an entirely different story. In the 2010 study, it was found that all vacationers experienced a significant boost in happiness during the planning stages of a trip because, as the researchers suggested, people look forward to the good times ahead.
That’s not to suggest that while we’re on a trip, we don’t experience joy. But social scientists say that we get an extra boost of happiness if we consciously delay any type of pleasure—be it booking an African safari months in advance or eating a piece of chocolate cake tomorrow instead of today. Doing this allows us to build up positive expectations and to revel in how enjoyable the experience might be.
It turns out, too, that there is an art to anticipation. Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a leading happiness researcher, says that savoring is an active—not passive—process. Immersing yourself by reading poetry and novels, watching films and television programs, and browsing design and fashion blogs that are either from or about the place you plan to visit encourages you to not only learn about your destination but to dream, allowing your mind to latch on to some concrete details.
It may sound counterintuitive, but this building up of positive expectations and excitement actually helps our minds smooth over any minor discrepancies if reality doesn’t quite measure up to the fantasy. We’re less likely to be bothered by mishaps if we assume our adventures are going to be wonderful ahead of time.
In a related study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2007, it was found that people are happier during the planning stages of a vacation than they were after taking one. In other words, we just might delight in looking forward to trips more than reminiscing about them. And, not only did actively anticipating a vacation deliver doses of gladness before the trip, it softened the disappointment of dashed expectations after returning.
Even if your vacation is terrible, nothing can take away the happiness you felt when you were simply fantasizing about it.
Amplifying the anticipation aspect
Happiness scholars attest that being social is a fundamental way to feel happier. So among the most effective methods for giving your trip-anticipation happiness an extra measure of pleasure is to talk with your friends about your upcoming travels or post about them on social media. People like each other better when they discuss experiential purchases as opposed to talking about material things.
The French have a verb for the happiness engendered by anticipation: se réjouir. It means to “capture the experience of deriving enjoyment in the present from anticipating the future.”
As for me, I’m going to take a trip to Iceland next year. I can’t wait.
Or, maybe I can.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,