Vacation not only feels blissful, it’s also good for your body: Regular trips are linked to a lower risk of heart attacks and increased lifespan, among other benefits.
It may come as no surprise that travel is also associated with mental health and happiness: While the wrong type of trip can leave you more stressed and frazzled than before, the right kind has the potential to grow your brain, help you find more meaning in life and provide memories that will give you happiness boosts for years to come.
Here’s how to take (and return from!) a trip that delivers the most mental bang for your buck.
1. Plan early and often.
Research shows travel’s biggest happiness boost comes not from trips themselves, but from the excitement of planning beforehand. However, one small study confirmed that some people feel more stressed than usual the week before vacation, due to mounting strain at work and home before they leave.
To prevent this, start planning far enough ahead of your trip that it can be a pleasurable experience. If you can, choose a time to travel when you won’t stress about being away from home or work, and plan a vacation within your budget to ease financial worries.
2. Choose somewhere new…
Novel and challenging places stimulate brain growth. Exploring them produces the same effect as if you picked up a new and complicated hobby, like tennis.
“When you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts,” University of Pittsburgh neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum told the Chicago Tribune in 2014. New dendrites, or extensions, form, and “your brain literally begins to look like a jungle,” he said.
3. …but not too new.
Relaxation is key for your brain to increase its productivity and its ability to pay attention, so any place that overwhelms or scares you is a no-go. For the ultimate creativity boost, visit a new culture with some of the same facets as home.
4. Go with people you know.
Making friends on the road is a worthy approach, but vacation is also an ideal time to soak in the mental benefits of being with ones you love most: A 2011 study showed that some of the highest levels of happiness are associated with spending quality time with our favorite people. Reminiscing on old times (like travel memories) with these people sparks joy, too. Of course, fighting during a trip has an overall negative effect on energy and productivity, so low-drama comrades are preferred.
5. Practice relaxing beforehand.
If you train your brain to shut off for small periods of time prior to your trip, it’ll be easier to zen out once you arrive, according to the Harvard Business Review. Try forgoing using your phone at night, hitting a yoga class or meditating to teach your brain that taking breaks is OK and it’s free to do so on vacation.
6. Front-load your trip…
The first few days of a trip make the biggest mark on how much you look forward to and remember it as a whole, happiness researcher Elizabeth Dunn told Science of Us in 2015. Start out strong ― with a fancy hotel or an exciting activity, for example ― for the best overall impression.
7. …with novel activities.
Go for that zip-line tour, or see that interactive theater show: Unique activities generate happiness more than ones that are easily compared with other options, Dunn told Science of Us. Also, mastering a new skill can increase your energy even after you get home, according to a 2006 study.
8. But choose relaxing ones, too.
People who engage in more leisure activities report finding more meaning in life. A better mood, more energy and greater life satisfaction also come from doing things you enjoy, and vacation is the perfect time to fit them in.
9. Stay (mostly) off your phone and email.
Aside from the obvious stress of trying to sneak work in on vacation, staying plugged in can make you less likely to remember your time away: One recent study found working for an hour a day can make you 43 percent more likely to struggle with recalling your trip, Fast Company reports. Don’t worry about using your phone to take photos, however, as some researchers point out they provide feel-good memories after the fact.
10. Take an extra day off when you get back.
If you can, take a day to catch up on chores, do laundry, delete emails and ease your way back into real life before heading to the office. If that’s not possible, then do what you can to avoiding packing your first days back with meetings, engagements and extra work, consulting experts advise.
11. Relive the magic often.
12. Don’t sweat the post-vacation blues.
It’s normal to feel a comedown when you re-enter your routine after an amazing trip: Research shows only a small percentage of very relaxing getaways actually make you happier after you return. Just remember that you did something valuable for your health by traveling and that you’ll certainly do it again!