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Happy travelling

Travelling is joyful. You don’t need any research to come up with that conclusion. But it’s not just being in a different destination that transports us to a “happy place”. From planning a trip, through to the post travel glow, there’s a lot of ways that travelling can boost our wellbeing. Rachel Grunwell has the low-down on why and how travelling makes us happy 

Shawn Achor, who is Harvard University trained and viewed as one of the world’s leading experts on happiness and positive psychology, answers some questions about travel and happiness. This comes in the wake of a Booking.com global survey of over 17,000 travellers who were asked about what parts of the travel experience they love the most. Achor also talks about what happens to our brains when we experience the “travel high”.

What are the happiest parts of travelling i.e. before, during etc?

The brain struggles to differentiate visualization from actual experience, so when we are imagining a trip we are in a sense experiencing it in the present. Moreover, when we are planning a trip, we visualise it in pristine form. We see beautiful photos of the accommodation and location online, but none of the stress to find the bus ticket counter, or the smells of a garbage truck that passed by. Once we’ve made a decision, for example about where to stay, we also need the reassurance of an instant confirmation to ensure uninterrupted enjoyment of this trip anticipation.

The Booking.com study found a strong correlation between enjoying the booking experience and happiness during the trip. That means that one of the best predictors of a happy vacation is to have an enjoyable booking process. People who did not enjoy their booking experience were significantly more likely to have a worse vacation.

Yet, all the anticipation in the world can’t replace the happiness of actually being on holiday. In fact, the research showed how almost nine out of ten (87 per cent) say it’s the first day of a holiday and seeing their accommodation for the first time (83 per cent) that are the happiest holiday moments.

Is there a general low when you return from holiday though?

If you compare your current life to the novelty and relaxation of a vacation, then your ordinary life will seem mundane and less happy. If, however, you savour the trip upon return by sharing it on social media or you return to work with greater levels of energy, you can create a different comparison point: instead of comparing your vacation to work, you can compare having not gone on the vacation and still working versus returning from a vacation renewed. And if you want to get over any post-holiday blues, immediately start planning and dreaming about your next trip.

While GPS systems and Sat Navs are old news, there’s plenty of room in the market for increased sophistication. The apps of today offer a more complex view of getting around offering traffic avoidance, and voice activation for saftey. You can find apps that tell you when your bus is due, or apps that show you delays, arrivals and departures in real time. There are even apps to facilitate the global game of hide and seek; Geocaching, and apps that link to your fitness band. Click here for some of our favourites. 

Why does travel make us so happy?

In a world where every dollar and hour count, travellers are looking for a higher return on their investment of time and money. Why take time off and pay money to be more stressed and less happy?

The study highlights how, whatever your type of vacation and wherever you’re planning to stay, whether that’s hostels, hotels, villas, Bed & Breakfasts, travel planned well (from research to booking), and ultimately enjoyed in line with our expectations, can dramatically improve our happiness. This links to my previous research published in Harvard Business Review indicating that, unlike the average vacation, well-planned, low stress vacations have a 94 per cent chance of returning you to work with greater levels of energy, engagement and happiness. Based on a decade of research, the greatest competitive advantage in the modern world is a positive and engaged brain. In fact, I recently found that people who take all of their vacation days are not only happier, they are 34 per cent more likely to receive a bonus over the next three years. Happy travel pays!

What can help with happiness when we travel - i.e. to make the experience even better?

Based on research, we know that the keys to a low stress, high return vacation are:

1) going far from home
2) staying in an accommodation that feels like home
3) planning well, to make sure your trip lives up to expectations
4) making a social connection on the trip
5) savouring the trip when you get back.

People who take all of their vacation days are not only happier, they are 34 per cent more likely to receive a bonus over the next three years.

What happens in our brain when we travel?

Dopamine, the neurochemical associated with pleasure, not only makes us feel happier but it turns on the learning centers in the brain. We strive not only to decrease pain, we actively pursue pleasure. Moreover, when the human brain is positive, our success rates rise dramatically. As I showed in The Happiness Advantage, the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engage brain as it raises every single business and educational outcome we know how to test. So perhaps our brains seek happiness via travel knowing that it causes greater well-being and thriving.

· Are there any tips on helping to make the travel high last?

You can extend a travel high by reliving the experience. The brain can't tell much difference between visualization and experience, so by looking back at old photos, making a video about the trip, or sharing on social media doubles the impact.

· Do tropical islands make us happiest or adventures, or simply any difference in landscape out of the norm?

Different climates make different people happy, but everyone's brain craves novelty so find a vacation climate or nature that is different from your norm.

What's your personal ultimate travel destination and why it makes you so happy?

I love nature and long to see parts of the world that return me to child-like awe. I felt it on a safari in Africa, and I have felt it in fjords in Europe. My dream vacation is to take my wife and son somewhere remote but safe where we could discover a new species and create a scientific name for it after my wife. Beyond that, I love any place where I get to have a long meal with someone and really get to know how their life is different and similar to my own.

Rachel is Good’s wellness columnist and the director of the lifestyle website Inspired Health. Follow her on Inspired Health’s Facebook  and Instagram