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You haven’t been on a plane since February, but Delta.com is still one of your “favorite” websites. The red triangle icon, nestled between Slack and Twitter, stares you down when you open a browser, daring you to click. More often than not, you succumb, charting routes to Morocco by way of Paris. Your browser history from earlier in the week indicates you already know where you’re going to stay—J.K. Place Paris, followed by the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property Royal Mansour Marrakech, perhaps? You’re still working out how much of the flights you can cover with points.
This is when vacationers are the happiest—not when they arrive home from a memorable trip, but as they’re starting to plan the itinerary. According to findings by Jeroen Nawijn published in “Applied Research in Quality of Life” in Springer's journal, travelers planning a vacation were reportedly happier than those with no intention of going away. Post-vacation, however, there was little difference in mood between those who traveled and those who didn’t take a vacation.
It’s really the lead up to a trip that produced feelings of happiness in travelers versus non-travelers.
“Travel takes us out of the monotony of our daily routines, and when we engage in the act of planning this departure, we are momentarily taken out of our current environment,” says Erica Sanborn, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles.
Sanborn specializes in anxiety and depression among adolescents and adults, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen a rise in both health-related and generalized anxiety. She’s observed that existing mental health problems have been exacerbated by heightened stress and a lack of feeling in control.
The concrete action items that come with putting together an itinerary (finding a flight and hotel, researching the destination ahead of time, leveraging accrued travel points to extend your stay) “can help us feel in control and productive,” says Sanborn.
Of course, whether planning a trip can boost mental health is contingent on each person’s unique circumstances and experiences, explains Columbia University psychology professor Carl Hart, who specializes in behavioral neuroscience. Nonetheless, Hart says the inherent optimism that comes with trip planning is a helpful outlook for mental health.
“If you’re planning a trip now and you think it may happen, that could make you feel better because you can be optimistic [looking] ahead,” says Hart. “It’s better to be optimistic.”
It’s also better to anticipate an experience, rather than a thing, evidently. “Waiting For Merlot,” a compilation of four studies focusing on gratification that comes with material things versus experiential purchases, found that even awaiting an experience trumps waiting for the fruits of your online shopping trip to arrive in the mail. All four studies found that “people derive more happiness from the anticipation of experiential purchases and that waiting for an experience tends to be more pleasurable and exciting than waiting to receive a material good.”
Compiling an itinerary, scouting a flight, or considering restaurants abroad can, in essence, mentally transport you. The trick is to let them. “When we engage in the act of planning this departure, we are even momentarily taken out of our current environment,” as Sanborn puts it.
“Depression and anxiety both steal joy from our futures,” says Sanborn. Trip planning is not just a way to seize control, it’s a way to actively protect future joy.
“In the midst of a depression it feels as if there is nothing positive to look forward to, and in a flurry of anxiety, the future we imagine is unmanageable and overwhelming,” she continued to explain.
That’s why planning a trip offers an antidote during a challenging week when nothing feels positive, enjoyable, or relaxing. “Planning a trip gives us a tangible experience to look forward to, which can be a lifeline in the midst of a depression.”
The lack of control and uncertainty is a major cause of anxiety and depression right now. Being in a constant state of flux reminds people that “when we come out of this situation, we’ll be in a new world,” says Professor Hart. “And people no longer know exactly how they’ll fit into that world, what they’ll need, and what they’ll have to give up.”
What we crave amidst the uncertainty is a sense of normalcy. Looking into future travel feels like a return to normalcy, says Professor Hart. “It can indicate some level of myopic time where you can go to a new place offering a different perspective, which might be insightful for you and can help deal with your situation, as it now stands, upon your return.”
Really, trip planning can be distilled down to the notion of having something to look forward to. It minimizes the feelings of “‘stuckness’ that are so prevalent in depression and anxiety,” says Sanborn.
As she puts it, “Planning a trip provides a mini-mental vacation each time we sit down to think about it.”
For travelers who have trouble wrapping their mind around travel plans that might not happen, Hart encourages staying present. “To use the example of a trip in October—worry about it not happening closer to October,” he says.