This post was written ahead, to be published while I am away on vacation with my husband. As I was thinking of topics, my mind kept drifting to the sunny beaches I intend to be gracing at publication time. Since I couldn’t stop thinking about my trip, I decided to investigate the notion of whether vacations can make you happy. The short answer? Yes! The longer answer is that while they absolutely can have a positive effect on your mood, poorly planned trips and/or unreasonable expectations can actually make you less happy.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take before, during and after your trip that will maximize the boost you can get from traveling. Not only that, but those who read to the end will discover that there are even ways to increase vacation-related happiness when you’re not taking a vacation!

Contrary to current opinion, one of the best ways to enjoy your experiences is to take pictures! While pulling out your smart phone or camera to record a moment has recently gotten a bad rap, I never quite bought into that idea. The theory is that you are more concerned with getting the best shot than you are with living the experience. This article on LiveScience.com confirms my suspicion that the opposite can be true. When you’re looking at your surroundings with an eye for how the picture will turn out, you are really looking, not simply letting information come passively into your brain.

“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.”

Author unknown

In addition to being more mentally involved while taking pictures, looking at your photos later — and reminding yourself of the good times you’ve had — can prolong the joy of the experience itself. A few years ago, my mother and I had the pleasure of spending several days in Paris. Across the street from our hotel resided a fellow we dubbed Balcony Man. (In order to preserve the anonymity preferred by Capitalized People everywhere, I have blurred Balcony Man’s face.)

Every day Balcony Man would come out onto the balcony, have a cigarette, and usually look at his phone. There was something so quintessentially Parisian about the whole thing that it almost made me feel like I had stepped into a movie.

When I think about that trip, relying purely on memory, I generally think back to viewing Monet’s works in Musée de L’Orangerie, or having a crêpe on the Rue de Rivoli. These are moments to remember, inarguably. When I look at this picture, however, I am transported across time and space, straight back to Paris and to how I felt when I was there.

Not all vacation pictures are created equal, of course. If you are armed with the knowledge that I am from a military family (through more than one generation), you can imagine all the photographs we have accumulated from places far and wide. Innumerable photographs in different locations, views which were probably stunning in real time, have become devoid of meaning — mere scenery now, empty of any personal connection.

While taking pictures to remind yourself of your vacation, mentally ask if this picture will mean more to you than a postcard of the same location. The shot taken from our hotel window is a lovely scene of wrought iron and relief façade, but to all but the most ardent lovers of architecture, it would be pretty boring without Balcony Man.

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.

Elliott Erwitt

As Balcony Man has not appeared on demand on any of my travels, nor will he for the near-infinite majority of any of yours, it is probably necessary to find another means of personalizing vacation pictures. If friends or family are traveling with you, putting them in the picture can help bring particular significance to the photo when you are looking at it later. This works admirably for accompanied vacations, but for some, traveling solo is the only way to fly. While the much-maligned selfie can do the trick (and brilliantly, if I may say so), there is nearly always someone willing to help you out if you ask.

Handing your camera to a complete stranger in an unfamiliar location can be unsettling, however. If you are uncomfortable with this, another option is to carry a favorite item with you to act as a unifying element across different locations. In the cover photo of this post, you see Clover, my prized stuffed cow, given to me by my husband (then boyfriend) in 1990. Her photographic debut was on our honeymoon, and she has appeared in a great number of locations between then and now.

Now, photography isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and even the most snap-happy of travelers sometimes forget to look at the pictures after the immediate excitement of the trip has faded away. Pictures or no pictures, the impulse to buy souvenirs can be strong. The more touristy the location the stronger the impulse seems to get. There’s nothing inherently wrong with purchasing a momento. There’s a trick to buying great souvenirs; know what you enjoy.

Before buying that snow globe, decide if it will make you happy when you look at it later or if it will simply be something to dust. If it truly will bring you happiness, it’s an investment in your well-being. Maybe you love to dust and are bored with dusting the same empty space on your mantle. In such a case, this could be the perfect momento for you. A year after your trip, you can pick it up, dust it, and give it a shake. You can watch the Alamo get snowed on, remember how much smaller the Alamo was than you expected, and move on with your dusting with a renewed sense of joy.

Now, I can come up with at least a hundred things I would rather do than dust. (Funnily enough, they all leap readily and urgently to my mind when dusting time rolls around.) Because of this, tourist site snow globes account for exactly zero percent of the real estate on my admittedly dusty mantle.

My husband was stationed in Germany, so our family saw places we had only dreamed of seeing before. Instead of selling the car and buying four trans-Atlantic airline tickets to Paris, we loaded up the car and drove there. Yes, I bought an Eiffel Tower keychain. No, I do not know where it is, nor did I ever use it on my keys.

On one of our trips, though, something amazing happened. I had an idea that turned out to be every bit as brilliant as I thought it was when I had it (which, for the record, does not happen nearly as often as I would like). I decied to buy a painting from a street artist. At present, we have eight paintings, drawings, and prints (there wasn’t a street artist in the pouring rain near Neuschwanstein, go figure) of various vacation spots on our living room walls. Not only do they remind us of our travels, but they beautify our home, and nearly all of them benefited the artist directly.

This all sounds very lovely, but what if you can’t afford a vacation to Paris or Regensburg in terms of money, time, or both? You are still in luck! It turns out that the best part of the vacation is the planning. The anticipation of an event actually triggers the reward center of our brain. The more you think about what you’re planning to do, the greater the pleasure you get from it.

Ask yourself the following questions. If time and money were no object, where would you go? What would you want to do while you’re there? Why do you want to do it? What do you hope to discover about your vacation location, or even about yourself? With these questions in mind, take advantage of the magical oracle we call the internet.

There are pictures and often even videos of places all over the world. For gorgeous video, rich with the sights and culture of Europe, for example, check our sites like Rick Steves’ Europe.  I could hardly tear myself away from his episode on the Scottish Highlands, which charmed me with Scotland’s sheep-herding border collies, fetchingly furry highland cattle, and verdant hillsides. I chose to watch this one because of my Scottish heritage, and soon found myself researching my clan history. While a trip to Scotland is not on the radar for my immediate future, even just dipping my toes into imagining a trip there stirred up excitement, delight, and yes, a feeling of anticipation.

Whether you are traveling to New Dehli for a month, exploring the world’s largest Paul Bunyan statue for an afternoon (it’s in Akeley, Minnesota, if you’re into that sort of thing), or spending a weekend globe trotting on the World Wide Web, the determining factor of your traveling pleasure is engaging yourself in the experience.

Wherever you are, and wherever you go, I bid you safe travels and brightest blessings! ~Sunny