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To boost happiness, treat your weekend like a vacation

If you’re having trouble making time for a break, recent research suggests that simply treating your weekends like a vacation can make you happier

An illustration of two people rowing a canoe across a peaceful pond in the woods.
(Abbey Lossing for The Washington Post)
3 min

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Americans spend more hours at work than people in many other countries. And though Americans often get fewer vacation days than people in other parts of the world, many don’t use even the vacation days they have.

Time off is important to reset and recalibrate. But if you’re having trouble making time for a vacation, recent research suggests that simply treating your weekends like a vacation can make you happier.

The findings, from researchers at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, are based on a series of experiments. In one study of 441 workers, half were instructed to spend a spring weekend like they would any other. But the other participants were instructed, “Treat this weekend like a vacation.”

When people returned to work Monday, those who spent the weekend like vacationers reported more happiness, less negativity and more satisfaction than those who approached the weekend like they always did. Weekend “vacationers” also spent more money in vacation mode — about $130 compared to $104. But it wasn’t money that bought happiness. After controlling for the amount of money spent, the vacation group was still happier than the control group.

One reason the vacation approach may have worked wonders: The vacation mind-set appears to be a more mindful mind-set. Vacationers reported being more attentive to the present moment.

“Treating the weekend like a vacation activates a mind-set shift — nudging us out of our constant doing mode, where our activities are items we’re trying to get through to check off our to-do lists,” said Cassie Holmes, professor at UCLA’s Anderson School and a study co-author. “The vacation mind-set allows us to feel like we can actually take a break and enjoy the moment.”

While you might assume someone could get more joy out of a trip to an amusement park than sitting at home watching television, it wasn’t the activities that predicted happiness. “Our results suggest that directing attention to the present was most important for reaping emotional benefits from time off,” the authors wrote.

The study showed that getting into the vacation mind-set during the weekend is relatively easy. To replicate the research in your life, just use this six-word prompt at the start of the weekend: “Treat the weekend like a vacation.” It’s that simple.

“I love this finding because it’s so easy to implement, yet can have such a dramatic effect,” said Holmes, author of the book, “Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most.”

The researchers had one important caveat. They “strongly cautioned” readers against using the technique as a substitute for actually taking a vacation. But the results, they said, offer “initial clues into how vacations improve emotional well-being and identify a way for people to make more of the time off they already have.”

For more insights into taking vacations, read this Department of Data story: The mystery of the disappearing vacation day.

And whether you have a vacation weekend or are taking a needed week or two off for fun, don’t let the vacation mind-set ruin a healthy diet. Our team at By the Way has advice: How to eat on vacation without feeling terrible.

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