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View of the beach in San Francisco, America’s favorite vacation city

For anyone who loves a journey and has an appetite for adventure, travel is as essential for pleasure as a working shower, delicious food and a good pair of walking shoes. An article in the Boston Globe by Drake Bennett applies a little more linearity to the concept of travel, vacations, and what that time away is really about.

Bennett points to research being conducted by both psychologists and economists on the concept of vacationing. Why do we take trips? What is it we want to happen? Is there one travel strategy that is better than another? Some of the findings are surprising.

From Bennett’s article:

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before. And though it may feel unnecessary, it’s important to force yourself to actually take the time off in the first place — people, it turns out, are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable things like vacations as unpleasant ones like paperwork and visits to the dentist.

Dan Ariely, author of two recent books, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and most recently The Upside of Irrationality, identifies the three components for optimizing a vacation—anticipating, experiencing, and remembering. This may sound obvious but as he points out, each plays a unique part in maximizing the value of a trip. What’s more, we really don’t know that much about “maximizing” a vacation experience. In spite of pouring over guidebooks, most people have an incomplete understanding of what really makes an experience enjoyable. As Bennett points out:

A longer vacation seems, by definition, better than a shorter one, and having lots of paid vacation time is a highly valued job perk. But when we recall an experience, and how it made us feel, it turns out that length isn’t terribly important…Looking back, what matters far more is the intensity of sensation, whether it’s excitement or pain or contentment. And it’s not the overall average of the experience that people remember, but how they felt at the most intense moments, combined with how they felt right as the experience ended. Psychologists call this the “peak-end rule.”

The research on the peak-end rule has focused on shorter-term sensations… but psychologists suspect that it also applies to longer experiences. If so, that means worrying about whether it’s possible to get extra days off to stretch a trip is wasted energy. And if you’re deciding between a longer trip and a more eventful one — if, for example, the money it would cost for a few more nights in a hotel would mean you wouldn’t be able to afford a coveted splurge dinner or surfing lessons or concert tickets or a rain forest guide — then it makes more sense to just shorten the trip in the interest of making it more intense while you’re there.

Bennett quotes from psychologist Thomas Gilovich: “If you have to sacrifice how long your vacation is versus how intense it is, you want shorter and more intense.”

Other good nuggets in the article, so definitely worth a full read. What seems prettyy obvious is that just about everything Bennett points out about intelligent traveling seems to be good advice on living life in general. I’m definitely a fan of intensity over duration, of the peak-end approach for living a life as well as for planning a trip.