Travel and the Art of Anticipation

For many of us, canceling vacations has become all too familiar. But as people begin to get vaccinated against Covid-19, the prospect of taking a trip seems a little less like a pipe dream.

Certainly, it will be a while before vaccines are widely available (and even then we will need to continue certain practices to stop the spread of the virus). However, just thinking about a future getaway can yield surprising benefits.

“Anticipation is such a valuable source of pleasure,” said Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has studied anticipation and happiness.

I first spoke with Dr. Dunn more than a decade ago when I wrote about spending and happiness on the heels of the Great Recession. Recently, I called her again to talk about travel and the art of anticipation in light of the pandemic. The result?

Practical tips from social science on how to cultivate anticipation, what type of trips to take if you want to maximize happiness post-pandemic (the answer may not be what you think), why now may be an excellent time to plan, and how discussing your future adventures can help others who are feeling isolated.

The happiness reset: You don’t have to go far

When we begin traveling again after months holed up at home, we will likely experience what Dr. Dunn referred to as a “happiness reset”— the result of which may be that even modest, less costly vacations will give us extreme pleasure.

“You can do something pretty simple and it’s going to feel fantastic,” she said.

That’s especially good news for the legions of travelers whose incomes have been hurt by the pandemic.

The theory behind why a more low-key trip may be a smart strategy is because at some point (faster than you think), you’ll get used to vacationing again.

“The more people travel, the less likely they are to savor each trip,” wrote Dr. Dunn and Michael Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and a member of Harvard’s Behavioral Insights Group, in “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.” Dr. Dunn was involved with studies that investigated the notion that “an abundance of desirable life experiences may undermine people’s ability to savor simpler pleasures.” In the resulting paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2015, Dr. Dunn and her fellow authors wrote that “being a world traveler — or just feeling like one — may undermine our proclivity to savor visits to enjoyable but unextraordinary destinations.”

So, in a sense, our current travel deficit may end up replenishing our wonder of exploring.

To take advantage of a happiness reset, begin with a simpler trip — a beach getaway close to home, a cross-country road trip, a fishing expedition with friends. No need for an extravagant getaway on the other side of the world. Even low-key trips are likely to feel novel after the pandemic. Dr. Dunn, for example, said she is planning a vacation with friends to a ranch in her home province of British Columbia when vacation travel there is allowed again.

“The happiness reset won’t last forever,” she said. “We’ll ramp up our expectations again. You might as well take advantage of this moment.”

How to cultivate anticipation

Ideally, you want to book a vacation far enough in advance that you have time beforehand to gather details about the destination, to build excitement and positive expectations. This is as true for a trip to a state park as it is for a trip to Sicily. Since you don’t know what will happen on a hike, an escape to distant coastal cliffs or an Italian getaway you can use the time beforehand to fantasize, to imagine the Mediterranean Sea, food and sunshine. It’s through this cultivation of anticipation that the pleasure of a vacation can be extended beyond the trip itself.

When you don’t give yourself enough time to actively anticipate a vacation — to pore over photographs of places you plan to see, read about history, browse things to do (you can discover more ways to cultivate anticipation for travel here) — you miss out on a potent source of pleasure. As the authors of investigations that examined people’s anticipation of, experiences in and recollections of, meaningful life events (including a trip to Europe, a Thanksgiving vacation and bicycling in California) wrote in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: “people’s expectations of personal events are more positive than their actual experience during the event itself.”

So yes, you need time to cultivate anticipation. But not too much time. The problem with things that lie in the future, researchers have found, is that we almost think of our future selves as other people. Dr. Dunn, for example, said she essentially thinks of her older, retired self as a different person. And it’s difficult to get excited about a distant, future self. But, she said, planning a trip with a “reasonable length of runway” (maybe a year as opposed to five years away) still feels like you’re the one who will be taking it.

In fact, the moment we’re in may offer the perfect amount of runway to cultivate anticipation. “The pandemic is forcing us to prioritize our future selves,” Dr. Dunn said. “January Liz feels pretty excited about what Summer Liz is going to be doing.”

Of course, there is a possibility that Summer Liz or even you will have to delay or cancel plans yet again, depending on how the pandemic evolves. But even if you do, you won’t lose the anticipatory pleasure you experience in the meantime.

As Dr. Dunn once put it: That’s “happiness already in the bank.”

Invite others to reminisce

Perhaps the most unexpected benefit of planning your own trip nowadays is that it can give great joy to someone else. Wherever you’re considering going, Dr. Dunn suggests calling a parent or grandparent, for instance, and providing them with an opportunity to reminisce about their own travels. Ask them if they have ever been where you wish to go.

Reminiscing, after all, has been shown to give us a happiness boost. We can do this for ourselves by looking at our old travel diaries or photographs. But we can also give the pleasure of reminiscing to others by inviting them to share their memories — something that may be particularly welcome amid the isolation of the pandemic.

“Creating opportunities for others to reminisce is a really kind thing to do,” said Dr. Dunn.

The planning phase is also an opportunity to virtually gather and touch base with the people you’re hoping to travel with someday, be they friends or extended family members. Make your future travel a reason for virtually interacting now, said Dr. Dunn, which is what she and her friends are doing in lieu of going out to dinner.

“I think starting to plan a vacation feels like this active step toward hope,” she said, “and the end of this terrible time that we’ve all been in.”

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