Want happiness? Plan a vacation, University of Alabama researchers say

Endless summer surfers, Elvis in the movies, the Go-Gos, Jack Johnson and Jimmy Buffett would probably agree with this premise: beach people live the sunniest lives.

But it turns out that it’s the journey that brings the most joy, according to a study by two researchers at the University of Alabama. Yes, beaches were named most often as desired destinations, in the study of 1,040 travelers from across the United States, but it’s the trip itself, the escape from routine, that creates the joy.

The traveler can climb mountains, sail on cruise ships or hike through parks, said Jay Waters, a UA instructor in advertising and public relations, who created the study with Jameson Hayes, professor Fellow and Director of AU’s Public Opinion Lab.

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“The common thread between all of these destinations is ‘I’m going somewhere I love; I walk away from work,'” Waters said. The move is crucial because so-called “staycation,” a leave where a respondent stays at or near home, did not yield the same positive reaction results.

“It’s the act of leaving your life” that leads to joy, Hayes said. According to their work, people mentally time travel to the next getaway. “But it wasn’t until they booked the next trip that it affected their happiness.”

Alyce Smith and her husband Bret prepare to go paddle boarding at Lake Nicol in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on Sunday, July 17, 2016. University of Alabama researchers say staycations aren't as satisfying as vacations. [Staff file photo]

The study focused on people between the ages of 25 and 55, because the researchers didn’t want the freer nature of retirement or the different expectations of college students to skew the results. Although limited in nature by the fact that this is the first year – Waters and Hayes hope to make this an expanding annual survey – the income levels of respondents were roughly in line with the national average. Those with the highest happiness indicators tended to travel between 15 and 21 days per year.

Life is a beach

The guess of life is a beach started with Mike Ragsdale, founder of 30A, a media and lifestyle brand inspired by the scenic highway that runs along the beaches of Walton County. Ragsdale, who received her bachelor’s degree in communications from UA in 1991 and her master’s degree in advertising and public relations in 1993, commissioned the study.

In the days of the Internet’s formation, Ragsdale helped establish ideas for user-generated content, co-founding some of AOL’s most popular communities, including comedy site Hecklers Online, video game community Antagonist Games Network and the sci-fi/fantasy community Zealot. He and his family are also avid travelers, but 30A was built on his love for the small-town Gulf Coast life. Its products include media channels such as 30A.com, 30A Radio, southwalton.com and Beach Happy magazine, through which it promotes socially responsible beach accommodations.

The Million Dollar Band and the University of Alabama cheerleaders enjoy a beach getaway at South Beach in Miami, Fla. on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. [Staff file photo]

“Mike, as you might expect, is a very happy guy,” Hayes said. Once residents of suburban Birmingham, the Ragsdales spoke so often of their love for the beach that their daughter encouraged them to put their plans into motion. When they’re not touring the world, they reside along the Emerald Coast, where 30A was founded.

“He’s very happy because he travels all the time,” Waters added. Ragsdale sent in some survey numbers he found, along with some general questions, and the researchers went from there, looking for the relationship between travel and happiness.

“The curious thing, the thing that he thought was true, that people at the beach were happier than other people…didn’t turn out to be true,” Waters said. “People on the beach were no happier than others, such as those who prefer the mountains or cruises.

“Really, that’s pretty much any type of leak.”

Beaches were mentioned as the preferred destination prominently by 34.2% of respondents, but these same people were just as likely to choose other trips in addition. Those who go on vacation can sometimes follow patterns, but on another trip, they tend to vary the choices.

James Tucker walks along the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk trail with signs of spring bloom around him from an azalea bush and a cherry tree on Monday, March 18, 2019. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

“Everyone takes every opportunity,” Waters said. Most of the surveys were completed last fall, before Omicron variants were known to be on the rise.

“So some people were thinking ‘In 2022 we’re free from home,'” he said. “So we saw that people were planning to travel more.”

And despite outbreaks and ongoing pandemic concerns, the market is showing that these people’s intentions are being fulfilled.

“Even with infection rates five times what they were last summer, the hotels are full, the airlines are full,” Waters said. “It validates the information that people were moving forward.”

Memories and Memories

And this “moving forward” vector is important, because it turns out that looking back on past vacations doesn’t provide the same emotional boost.

“We thought maybe reminders, keepsakes, when we use these apps or tokens that we bought, these bumper stickers or whatever, would have a more positive effect,” Hayes said. “But thinking back doesn’t affect happiness in the same way. Thinking ahead about doing, booking and planning. Looking back kind of erased the effect.”

They were puzzled about it for a while, Waters said, looking back fondly on recent trips with his wife.

“But there’s a bit of nostalgia, a bit of regret: ‘I can’t repeat that,'” he said. “Considering our upcoming trip to Banff (in Alberta, Canada), there’s no downside to that. There’s not that melancholy of ‘I might not be there anymore.’ “

A young shopper shops for souvenirs at Souvenir City in Gulf Shores in this March 5, 2011 file photo. [Staff file photo]

There’s a sweet spot for memories, matching any retrospective happiness, Hayes said. People who brought home with their arms full did not register as happily as those who settled for two or three specific little things. These are usually bumper stickers, ringtones and any type of display you can put on your desk, a visual reminder, he said. This is something they plan to explore further in future studies, the effects of past travel on happiness.

Other areas they’d like to dive into include the differences between tourists – people who view travel as entertainment – versus travelers, those who see adventure experiences as life enhancements.

“Also, ‘How did this become my favorite place?’ We couldn’t really get to that this time around,” Waters said. “Even if I have a favorite place, why doesn’t he go back there? When does it become part of my life, do I become less of a traveler and more of a part-time resident? salt loses its flavor, sort of thing.”

By comparing the results with other studies on psychological happiness, this UA-30A work reveals that those who travel express a more general joie de vivre. And to heighten the fun, Waters said, keep an eye out for the horizon.

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