The Secret to Memorable Vacations: Keep ’Em Short and End ’Em Sweet

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In an earlier post we described research showing that people get more long-lasting satisfaction from money spent on experiences than money spent on material goods. If you read that post and took it to heart — humor us — an obvious question arose: Do psychologists have anything to say about what sorts of experiential purchases yield the most enduring satisfaction? As it happens, they do. And we thought now was a good juncture to share it because this is the time of year when many people plan their spring and early-summer vacations. If you’re one of those folks, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Last is best. Things you experience on your last day of vacation will be enhanced simply because you know they’re happening at the end. In a recent paper in Psychological Science, psychology researchers Ed O’Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth had University of Michigan students taste five types of chocolates — milk, dark, crème, caramel and almond — varying the order in which they were eaten. Some students ate the last one knowing it was the last; others were not given that info and were left to assume it was just another in the series. When later asked to pick which one was their favorite, two-thirds chose the last one when they knew it was the finale when they ate it; only a fifth did so when they hadn’t known it was the last. So be sure to choose something like chocolate on the last day or two of your vacation — something good that will seem even better because it comes at the end.

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Last lasts longer. What comes at the end of an experience matters even more with the passage of time — that is, as we look back on what we’ve done and where we’ve been. In a classic work by the Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman (there’s a reason his book is a best seller) and fellow psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, it was shown that our memories of events are dominated by what they were like at their peak (for positive events) and at their nadir (for negative events) — and what they were like at the very end. In other words: in hindsight, it doesn’t matter so much how long an event lasted, a phenomenon known as duration neglect, but how strongly we experienced its central feeling (say, the joy of a wedding or the sorrow of a loved one’s fatal illness).

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Keep it short and sweet — and repeat. The implication of the above insights is profound. Most of us do not have financial resources to make a vacation both as long as we’d prefer and as intense as we’d like. We generally have to trade off one for the other. So, to maximize your enjoyment, it’s best to trade time for intensity. Two weeks in Hanalei, Hawaii, would be awesome. But if you have to sacrifice dinner at your favorite restaurant, scuba lessons or a helicopter flight in order to afford to stay the full two weeks, you might reconsider. In fact, even if you can afford that fortnight to the fullest extent, there’s an argument to be made for splitting those two weeks into a pair of separate trips, each with its own “peak-end” combo of highest high and memorable coda. In the fullness of time you’ll have more positive — and more memorable — memories to bring on a smile when you reminisce.