Remember back in March and early April when we were all panic-buying supplies to prepare for spending a few weeks hunkered down in our homes? Our new lockdown lifestyle seemed like something we’d live through for a period of time, and then life—including the summer—would resume, mostly as usual. At this stage, summer vacations weren’t just an annual tradition, or a way to explore a new destination: looking forward to them became a coping strategy for a lot of people.
When it sunk in that most travel this summer (beyond quick, socially-distanced road trips) wasn’t going to happen, we lost that form of escape, both mentally and in terms of the actual trip. In fact, for some people, anticipating vacations is a form of self-care, Taisha Caldwell-Harvey, a psychologist and chief executive of the Black Girl Doctor tells the LA Times. Here’s why “vacation anticipation” can improve our well-being, and how to recreate it without the actual vacation.
What are the benefits of vacation anticipation?
For years, I’ve used travel—both the trip itself and looking forward to it—as a way to deal with my anxiety. When everything else was too much and my thoughts were racing, I could take a break and calm down by looking up oddly specific local museums or historical sites at my upcoming destination, or think about what I was going to eat when I got there.
As it turns out, I’m not alone. According to Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, looking forward to a trip gives your mind plenty to do—especially during stressful times. “You’ve never been to the Hawaiian Islands, and you try to predict what it’s going to look like. That’s the kind of soothing thought that puts you to sleep,” he tells the LA Times. And the benefits don’t stop there Gilovich adds: after you’ve taken the trip, you then have the opportunity to do a mental comparison between your expectations of the vacation and your actual experiences, which could be gratifying.
But the mental benefits of vacation anticipation extend beyond those using it to manage anxiety. “The emotional system is really geared toward steering people to engage with good things and to avoid bad things,” Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder tells the LA Times. He points out that this is why looking forward to future events can be more satisfying than thinking back on what has happened in the past.
How to replicate the benefits of ‘vacation anticipation’
We’re not going anywhere anytime soon, but fortunately, there are ways to get similar benefits without booking a flight. Here are a few:
Plan a day trip or a quick nearby weekend getaway
So, you may not be jetting off to your dream destination, but even planning smaller excursions like day trips or nearby weekend getaways can help. “The benefits of experiential consumption can be quite modest,” Gilovich tells the LA Times. “Hopefully, people are taking local trips and … using hiking trails and bike paths in their communities that they didn’t use before.” Not sure where to go? Make a list of the different parks and trails in your area that you’ve never visited before. They may be near where you live, but they are still new experiences you can anticipate.
Plan a four-hour vacation
The downside of local activities is that once you’re out of that park, you’re snapped back into the reality of your everyday life. But, Caldwell-Harvey shared a tip from a colleague that can give you something closer to the experience of letting go and relaxing while you travel: a four-hour vacation. “She orders her favorite food, she has her wine … doesn’t bring the phone in there with her, and she completely vibes out, listens to music and does whatever she wants to do,” Caldwell-Harvey tells the LA Times.
Of course, if you live with other people (especially children), a four-hour vacation may take some coordination. But once you’re sprawled across the couch watching your favorite show with a solid snack assortment, you’ll be happy you put the effort in.