How to have the perfect stress-free holiday (according to science)

Holidays family holiday solo holiday - Getty
Holidays family holiday solo holiday - Getty

We place immense importance on our holidays – perhaps even more since the pandemic and the limits that were imposed on travel – so it’s little wonder that academics have devoted plenty of research time to the science of the perfect break. Thanks to their findings (and after conversations with leading “happiness experts”), and to mark Stress Awareness Day, we’ve devised a ten-point formula for a failsafe escape.

Plan carefully

James Wallman, author of Time And How To Spend It, likens an unplanned holiday to not filling your fridge, instead relying on pricey junk food to get through the week and feeling a little unwell afterwards.

It’s a theory backed up by research from Erasmus University which found that poorly-planned, stressful holidays leave travellers feeling worse than ever, while those that go well can be energising.

Wallman’s advice? Devise your itinerary long before you board the plane. “The anticipation and planning of a holiday equals free happiness,” he says (he loves planning so much that he’s created his own ‘Morocco and the Science of How to Get More From Your Time’ tour in conjunction with New Scientist).

Top of his list is getting the timing right. “There’s a tendency to go for the latest flight possible on the way home for example, but actually the best time is mid-afternoon: you don’t have to pack the day before, you can have a leisurely breakfast but you’ll get home at a civilised time”.

Aim for eight days

That’s the magic number, according to 2012 research from Finland’s Tampere University. Scientists analysed the trips of 54 holidaymakers and found that their happiness peaked when they finally let go of lingering work and home stress. By day 11, however, homesickness and boredom had struck. There seems to be a gap in the market for eight-day getaways, but Exodus and Explore have a few. Don’t worry too much though: subsequent research by members of the same team found that the benefits of a holiday fade after a week (regardless of how long travellers have been away), so it might be better to take more frequent, shorter breaks after all.

Go it alone

Solo holidays - Getty
Solo holidays - Getty

Devised in 2016, the “savanna theory of happiness” generated immediate attention by positing that people with higher IQs felt happier with less social interactions and used solitude as a way to handle stress – it turns out that leaving the partner and/or kids at home is big and clever. Roxie Nafousi, author of Manifest: 7 Steps To Living Your Best Life, is a firm fan of solo holidays. “It’s the ultimate antidote to a busy life,” she says. “I love being able to do things in my own time: not feeling obliged to go out for dinner every night and instead getting into bed early with a good book. I also find other people are much chattier when travelling alone so there’s a greater opportunity to meet new people.”

Return more than once

There’s no shame in going back to that hotel you stayed in back in 1965 because you have fond memories of the Bardot lookalike in Room 46. In fact, go back again and again and again if it makes you happy. “The more we return to the same place, the more we develop a deep connection to it,” says Clay Routledge, Vice President of thinktank The Human Flourishing Lab and a psychologist specialising in nostalgia. “It makes the experience feel more meaningful.” Want to bore your family by taking them along for the ride? That’s OK too. “Taking your children to places you vacationed is a great way to create or bolster intergenerational nostalgia,” says Routledge. “Having shared, cherished memories can connect across age divides.”

But try new things

It’s fine to stay firmly in your holiday comfort zone if you’re savouring every minute, but if you’re beginning to feel frustrated and agitated, it might be time to try something different. “By challenging ourselves and putting ourselves in new environments, we’re actually able to increase our brain’s function,” says mindset and wellbeing coach Emma Humphrey (she’s referring to the ability of the brain’s neurons to make new connections in response to new experiences).

She practises what she preaches, having just returned from a six-month tour of South America which she embarked on during the pandemic with absolutely no knowledge of Spanish. She loved it, but cautions that you’ll only get that exhilarated feeling if you’re genuinely excited – don’t agree to climb a mountain or jump out of a plane just because your friends or family want to. “Check in with yourself and your motivations – if it’s someone else’s goal, you’re not going to get anything out of it. But if it will give you a sense of adventure, go for it.”

Embrace being idle

Extreme sport over, it’s time to relax. By all means tour the markets and museums, but make a window to sit on a sunlounger too. “Factor in chill times between the big experiences,” says Wallman. “They’ll provide the opportunity to decompress and take in what you’ve done.” You might even have a Eureka moment while sunbathing: Manfred Kets de Vries, one of the world’s most respected thinkers on leadership, believes that doing absolutely nothing gives the mind the time it needs to replenish. He even advocates feeling bored as it stimulates the under-utilised right hemisphere of the brain, fuelling the imagination along the way.

Turn off your smartphone

family holidays smartphones - Getty
family holidays smartphones - Getty

A recent survey by Passport Photo Online confirmed what we already knew: 68 per cent of people wished they’d been unreachable on their last holiday and 60 per cent said that using a smartphone for work impacted their plans while they were away.

Psychologist Seth J. Gillihan knows all about this, having gone smartphone free on his own trip for an experiment. “One of the best parts about a holiday is the change in perspective that a new locale provides,” he says. “We see things more clearly from a distance – but that change in perspective may be less apparent when we maintain the same pattern of smartphone: checking our online accounts at the same times, continuing to follow the same media threads, knowing exactly what’s happening in the world. We might avoid FOMO, but sacrifice JOMO: the Joy of Missing Out.”

His advice? “If you want to stay off social media on holiday, remove the apps that you’ll be tempted to use. At a minimum, make them hard to get to so you can’t impulsively check them with a couple clicks of a button.”

Don’t overdo the booze

“If you like pina coladas... be sure to drink them in moderation”. That’s not quite how the song goes, but you get the point. Holidays are associated with letting your hair down, which in turn is associated with booze – but holidays and alcohol lead to a particular set of problems according to Professor David Nutt, Director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit at Imperial College and author of Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health.

Lower prices often equal higher consumption while it can be hard to fathom the strength of the local tipple of choice. Stag dos and lads’ holidays involving lots of alcohol can fuel outlandish behaviour such as ‘balcony-ing’ (jumping from balconies into hotel pools). Even if you’re not full-scale carousing, “getting drunk with your friends and family might lead to anger – while the hangovers will lead to irritable moods,” Nutt says.

If you’re worried about how drinking might affect your holiday, he advises setting some rules before you jet off. “Avoid duty free and don’t drink in your hotel room,” he says. “Limit it to bars and restaurants.”

Don’t worry if it all goes wrong

It might – and flight cancellations, bad weather or spending too much can send stress levels soaring. The key is to look at it all as a learning opportunity. “Stressful vacations during which nothing goes according to plan can create opportunities for people to push themselves outside of their comfort zone and learn something about their character,” says Clay Routledge. “At the time, this can be very unpleasant but once those negative emotions fade, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the experience.”

End on a high

holidays champagne luxury - Getty
holidays champagne luxury - Getty

The family insisted on coming with you for the full eight days, your spouse’s smartphone is surgically attached, your long-awaited skydiving excursion was cancelled – and you have a mammoth hangover because you didn’t listen to Professor Nutt. But don’t give up and go home early. In psychology, the peak-end rule demonstrates that our ultimate memories are informed by an event’s final moments as much as its peaks and troughs (the most obvious example being childbirth). Even if your holiday isn’t as painful as a 14-hour labour, make sure it finishes with a particularly exciting bang. Tackle the theme park on the last day, save the blow-out dinner for the final night, or grab a glass of champagne at the airport before your flight home – your memory will thank you for it.

What makes a 'perfect holiday' for you? Tell us about it in the comments section below