Holidays are great. Planning them makes us happy, taking them may lower our risk of heart attack and depression. When we get back to work, we may be more engaged and more creative.
But how long should we go for? And is it possible that an economic concept called the “bliss point” could be applied to determine the perfect length for the holiday you have in mind, whether it’s partying in Vegas or camping in the mountains?
Too much of a good thing?
The concept of a “bliss point” has two different but related meanings.
In the food industry, it means identifying the perfect combinations of salt, sugar and fat to include in products so that consumers love them and find them hard to resist.
But it’s also an economic concept that refers to the level of consumption at which we are most satisfied; the peak beyond which any further consumption makes us less satisfied.
With food, distinct flavors tend to overwhelm the brain, which can dampen our desire for more, something known as “sensory-specific satiety’’. When it comes to music, we’ve all ruined our favorite songs by listening to them too much, changing the way our brains react to them.
Many of us have experienced that point at which – even though we’ve had a great time – we’re ready to go home
So how does it work when it comes to taking a holiday? Many of us have experienced that point at which – even though we’ve had a great time – we’re ready to go home. Is it possible that, even relaxing on the beach or exploring exciting new places, we can have too much of a good thing?
Why dopamine is key
We can’t be sure, but psychologists suggest dopamine, a pleasure neurochemical in the brain that is released in response to rewarding human activities, plays a role. Rewarding activities could include actions that are biologically significant such as eating and sex, as well as stimuli like money, gambling or being in love.
Dopamine is known to produce a feel-good state. And according to Peter Vuust, professor of neuroscience at Aarhus University in Denmark, exploring a new place spikes dopamine levels because it often challenges us to adapt to new environments, cultures and routines.
The more complex an experience is, the more likely it is that we will get dopamine-soaked satisfaction, he says. “If the experience is one-dimensional, you get tired of it very quickly. But if it’s varied and challenging, it will keep on being interesting. And the bliss point will be delayed.”
The more complex an experience is, the more likely it is that we will get dopamine-soaked satisfaction – Peter Vuust
He explains that our anticipation of pleasurable experiences increases dopamine levels. So too does familiarity – going back to a hotel or place you loved before, for example – but over-familiarity reduces enjoyment as we become bored.
Novelty is nice
There’s limited research on the subject. Jeroen Nawijn, a senior lecturer and researcher at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, says most research on holiday happiness – his included – has explored short trips of no more than a couple of weeks, because there are limited datasets to study.
His study on the moods of 481 tourists in the Netherlands, most of whom were on trips of 17 or fewer days, found no evidence of the bliss point.
“I don’t think people will reach the bliss point on relatively short vacations,” says Nawijn. But he believes it “could definitely happen on longer trips”.
There are a few theories for why this might be the case. The first goes that we simply get bored, just like when we listen to songs on repeat too many times.
One study found that between one-third and just under half of our holiday happiness boost comes from novelty, or a sense that stimuli are new and different from daily life. On longer trips, there’s more time for us to become accustomed to surrounding stimuli, especially if we stay in one destination and do similar activities – say, at a vacation resort.
One study found that between one-third and just under half of our holiday happiness boost comes from novelty
Then again, people can simply vary holiday activities to prevent tedium. It is possible to enjoy a vacation for several weeks if we have the freedom and means to choose what we do.
What you do matters
It’s certainly true that how happy we think we are during leisure depends on whether we have autonomy over our activities, according to research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. It found that there were several paths to leisure bliss, including doing activities that challenge us and provide learning opportunities, as well as meaningful activities that add purpose to our lives, such as volunteering.
If different activities make different people happy, then bliss points are probably very individualized, says Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Colorado at Boulder.
He believes that activities could determine holiday bliss points. One important consideration, he notes, is the psychological and physical energy required to carry them out. Some activities are physically exhausting for most people, like mountain trekking. Others, such as partying in Vegas, are both mentally and physically tiring. Van Boven says that on holidays that drain us, “bliss points may occur at lower levels of consumption than people expect”.
But the individual differences are enormous, points out Ad Vingerhoets, a professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He says some people may find active holidays energizing and relaxing beach breaks tiresome, and vice versa.
“Choosing activities that suit our personal tastes, but limiting those that burn us out, could postpone the bliss point,” he says. But no research has been done yet to confirm whether this hypothesis holds true.
Pick your environment
Another important factor could be the environment in which we take our holidays. City breaks, for instance, can be exhilarating. But crowding, noise and night-time lights, which can affect our sleep, may cause physical and emotional stress and anxiety.
“The constant stimuli in cities can overload our senses and stress us out,” says Jessica de Bloom, a researcher at the Universities of Tampere and Groningen in Finland and the Netherlands.
This is especially true if we are also adapting to a new culture which challenges us. “This suggests that you’d reach the bliss point more quickly in an urban environment than a natural one, which we know can vastly improve mental wellbeing,” she says.
But again, the individual differences are relevant. Colin Ellard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada, says that while some people may find cities overwhelming, others could thrive in them. He says city dwellers, for instance, could be more comfortable on urban holidays, since research shows that we tend to like stimuli that are familiar.
I expect a demographic difference in people’s vacation bliss point – Colin Ellard
Then again, says Ellard, it could be that city slickers are just as physiologically stressed as everyone else but aren’t aware of it because they are used to the stress. “Either way, I expect a demographic difference in people’s vacation bliss point,” he says. But the lack of research in this area makes it impossible to be certain.
The good news, though, is that there are potentially plenty of ways to postpone the bliss point, even though we don’t know exactly when it occurs. Planning where you go, what activities you do and with whom, is one way to figure out your individual bliss point.
Ondrej Mitas, an emotion researcher at Breda University, believes that we all subconsciously accommodate our bliss points by booking the kinds of holidays and activities we think we will like for the amount of time we think we would prefer.
That’s why family and group holidays, which combine the desires of multiple people, might have shorter bliss points, since we can’t prioritize our individual needs, he says.
But Mitas says the lost autonomy could be outweighed by building strong social relationships with the holiday groups, which research shows are significant predictors of happiness. In which case, he says, the bliss point may be prolonged.
The problem is that most of us are probably getting our happiness predictions wrong, adds Mitas, since studies conclude that we are not very good at forecasting how decisions make us feel.
“It will take deep reflection, trial and error to know what makes us happy and for how long, which is the key to delaying the vacation bliss point.”