How to Have Your Most Fulfilling Vacation Ever

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Looking for a good vacation this year? You might choose from a number of models. For example, Instagram Adventure, in which you pick an exotic destination, pack as much as you can into every day, take a million pictures, and document everything on social media to advertise that you are as energetic in leisure as you are at work. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Couch Potato, which means that you fritter away the entire two weeks doing very little. Other popular options include Two Endless Weeks in My Childhood Bedroom (for 20-somethings) and A Whole Month’s Pay Shot at Disney Because the Kids Whined All Year (for 30-somethings).

One great vacation model, which harks back to the ancients, is frequently overlooked. The word for “leisure” in Greek is σχολή, or skhole. In Latin, the word is schola—from which we get “school.” In other words, the name for the place where we teach and learn derives from the word for “leisure.” One way to interpret this is that education is a recreational activity (a concept that may strike my hardworking students as counterintuitive). But a better explanation comes from the 20th-century philosopher Josef Pieper, who believed that leisure is the circumstance in which we can learn the most, if we understand and use it properly.

If the conventional vacation models are leaving you cold, Pieper’s insight could provide the holiday you’ve been looking for. This year, consider using your time off as an opportunity to learn something wonderful.

People pursue different objectives in their vacations, but no one I have ever met was seeking lower levels of positive emotion. The point is to be happier than usual, which is why a bad vacation is so frustrating—it feels like a missed opportunity to reset and make some emotional progress.

To get the most contentment from your vacation, it is worthwhile to start with an understanding of basic human emotions. The negative side includes anger, sadness, fear, and disgust, which alert us to threats and stimulate behaviors such as fight or flight to keep us safe. These are obviously not the emotions you are hoping to experience on vacation—though all bets are off if a long car ride with the kids is involved.

An abundance of basic positive emotions such as joy, surprise, and anticipation are what you seek. But you shouldn’t neglect another positive emotion of special importance: interest—the feeling of curiosity or fascination that captures your attention.

The experience of interest is favored by evolution: It comes from learning new things, which rewarded our ancestors with more food and a greater chance at survival and reproduction. The same tendency for your Pleistocene hominin forebear to feel satisfaction after devising a novel way to catch a small animal persists in us today when we first master riding a bike or succeed in making a presentable soufflé.

The well-being effect from learning is not as straightforward as it is for other activities, such as eating a doughnut. In fact, it involves a bit of sacrifice. As scholars found in 2011, investing in an activity to raise competency can lower your moment-to-moment happiness but can boost well-being measured over a longer time frame of hours and days. This makes perfect sense, of course: You rack your brain learning calculus but then bask in knowing it. In that respect, learning is like exercise: sometimes painful in the moment but rewarding overall.

A key to maximizing satisfaction through learning is intrinsic motivation, or what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who famously wrote about “flow states”) called “autotelic learning”: learning for its own sake. Neuroscientists in 2014 used fMRI technology to show that this type of learning has to do with the brain’s response to curiosity. They demonstrated high levels of activity in the midbrain and a structure known as the nucleus accumbens, which indicated an enhanced release of dopamine, when study participants were highly curious about a subject. In other words, satisfying your curiosity through learning about whatever you’re most interested in will give you a neurochemical payoff.

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But is learning identical to education? You might be tempted to extrapolate from this evidence to predict, for example, that if everybody went to college, we would have a happier society. Not so fast: One 2017 study suggests that whether higher education drives happiness up or down depends on, among other things, where you live. In nations without high levels of education, many of which are considered developing countries, university education is associated with higher happiness. In countries with labor markets saturated with educated individuals, which is characteristic of greater economic development, the effect is reversed—university attendance is associated with lower happiness. One possible explanation is that for the former group, university training offers a path out of poverty, but for the latter group much of this effect has long since been depleted. Alternatively, something about the rich-world college experience may contribute to lower well-being. Suffice to say that the sort of leisure learning the Greeks had in mind is not identical with the modern American college experience.

Taken together, the research points to a clear strategy to build a great vacation: Identify something you are very interested in for its own sake and focus on it intensively. And because the task or skill should be challenging enough to increase competence, the satisfaction goal should be understood in hours and days, not in the moment to moment of learning.

You can choose a range of ways to achieve this outcome, whether cheap and casual or expensive and formal. At one end of the scale, you can simply program your own reading curriculum. Over two weeks, you might set about carefully reading four books on a particular topic. Or you might decide to read the entire Bible or Quran. You might also mix your media: reading a biography of J. S. Bach, for instance, while listening to 50 of his cantatas.

At a more formal level, you might dedicate your vacation to taking a class. Perhaps you want to learn how to cook Punjabi cuisine, or follow one of the many “massive open online classes” (MOOCs, for short) that are available for free, such as—random example—one about exploring the science of happiness. For a more intensive (and expensive) option, you might hire a teacher to give you a head start on playing the guitar or speaking Mandarin, and do that for several hours every day. Or hire a nutrition-and-fitness coach. You will be amazed at how much progress you can make in two weeks.

At the most rigorous level, you might go all in and spend your vacation on a guided silent retreat in one spiritual tradition or another. Or perhaps you could make a pilgrimage, walking in contemplation without devices or interruptions, and immersing yourself during rest periods in a wisdom literature that complements the experience.

In a famous passage of The Republic, Plato advises on how to educate children in a way that will bring out their best: “Do not … keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play. That will … better enable you to discern the natural capacities of each.” In other words, kids will learn better if you allow them to enjoy recreation in a constructive way, rather than forcing them to study, which is more likely to stimulate rebellion.

A similar principle lies behind the best model of vacation. Feeling compelled to relax and have fun is a common and counterproductive mistake. Telling yourself “I will be refreshed and not think about work!” is bound to lead in the wrong direction. Instead, employ a Platonic strategy and turn your leisure into learning. You might just have your best holiday ever.

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