The stay-cation: Having fun while staying put

Make the most out of your stay-at-home vacation

Posted Jun 29, 2010

No one can deny the virtues of vacationing as a relief from stress and a way to enliven your close relationships. However, with gas prices skyrocketing, air travel becoming more stressful, and people living on tighter budgets, getting away for a summer holiday weekend may be out of reach for many.

Staycation3For the unemployed, the prospect of travel is almost enitrely out of the question.  Surveys show that Americans take fewer vacation days than Europeans but still a few more than the Japanese. This trend actually goes back several years, and can be traced back to 2006 when "Shrinking-Vacation Syndrome" was first identified. Let's call it "SVS" for short.

If you're a victim of SVS, you may be feeling particularly gloomy about the prospects of a stay at home summer. Keep reading, though, and you'll feel much better. By the time you're done with your stay-cation you'll wonder why you ever wanted to leave home.

Begin by trying a bit of cognitive dissonance reduction. We all have come to believe that the best vacation is one that involves exotic travel to amazing places. In fact, who wouldn't sacrifice anything and everything to see the Mona Lisa? You think to yourself, "If I can't see the Mona Lisa this year (or next, or next...) doesn't that mean that I haven't lived? What's wrong with me and my life?"

Mona 2Well, you'd be surprised to find out that, according to one travel review site, the Mona Lisa is the #1 (out of 8) most disappointing sights in Europe. Riding a gondola in Venice is #2!  What is wrong with these jaded travel reviewers? How can they be so cynical? The answer is that when you factor in the cost, effort, and potential crowding in the most popular tourist attractions, they are just not all they're cracked up to be, according to the pros.

To make you feel even better, you can figure out how much you're saving by not going anywhere. Take a look at the  most expensive hotel rooms in the world.  The Royal Villa at Grand Resort Lagonissi, Athens tops out at #1 with a cost is a mere $48,000 USD per night (well, it does have a total square footage of almost 13,000 sq. feet). How ridiculous is that? What's more, you'd pay $16000 USD to book the Royal Suite at the Four Seasons George V in Paris. Even more ridiculous. Why would you want to waste your money just to see the over-rated Mona Lisa!

OK, you're feeling a bit better now. But there is something else to be gained by fantasizing about yourself in one of these posh properties. Cornell and Penn State researchers Robert Kwortnik and William Ross found that vacation planning in and of itself can release a host of positive emotions. The closer the vacation image is to your mental image of your true self, the more positive emotions that planned vacation stirs up. If you have visions of yourself as one of the Sex and the City travelers, then you'll get the most rush out of checking out (online of course) one of the luxury Dubai resorts.

Kwortnik and Ross identified other pleasurable and important aspects of the vacation-planning process. To balance the emotional, there is the cognitive benefit of engaging your mind in novel problem-solving activities (ask yourself- how can I get the most private beach at the best cost?). You can also bond with those who are closest to you by sharing ideas with friends and families as the planning progresses. While you play around with your vacation ideas, you open up your mind to new adventures, and this alone can boost your mental flexibility.

People also experience more positive emotions when they think about a future vacation than when they remember their past experiences from vacations they actually took. Experimental psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Laurence Ashworth asked undergradutes to rate their emotions while they imagined themselves on a hypothetical ski vacation.  The students had more intense emotions in this scenario than did students recalling an actual event they experienced. The anticipation of the hypothetical vacation also seemed to engage their cognitive processes more than did recall of actual past events.

We can conclude, as the old long distance slogan used to say, that when it comes to vacation planning ..."it's the next best thing to being there." Maybe better.

But let's return to the here and now. You're trying to get over SVS and you need some inspiration. The cure for SVS is to take one or two (or more) of the following, as necessary, on the basis of whether you're looking at a 2-day weekend, a long weekend, or however much vacation time you've taken off from work. 

1. Do something physically active. In my previous blog, I pointed out the importance of actively engaging in a vacation experience, a claim I based on a study of the vacation experiences of lawyers. If you're going to get the same psychological boost as a scuba-diving lawyer, you'll need to move around in some way, shape, or form. Take advantage of a special rate at a local gym, the Y, or fitness club. Many of them have downtimes during the high vacation seasons of the year. Sometimes you can get a whole week's gym membership for free, on a trial basis. Once you start working out, you may find that it's something you want to continue on a regular basis. In fact, the kind of activities you engage in during a stay-cation are by definition ones that you can maintain throughout the year.

2. Engage your mind. You may not be building new synapses as a result of learning the tube map of London, but you can find ways to develop your neurons in ways that are equally challenging. You can take however long you'd like to play some of those video games that you would otherwise sneak in stealthily while you're supposed to be working. Get your pencils out and play around with new crossword or other puzzles that you haven't tried before. Read a book. Learn (or re-learn) a musical instrument. Take an Adult Ed or hobby-oriented class.

3. Change your routines. Shake up your normal 24-hour rhythms, starting with your body's clock. No one really enjoys switching time zones, but there may be something to be said for tweaking your sleep-wake cycle just to get you out of your ordinary mode of life. Stay up late or get up super-early. Eat at different times than you normally do and try some new foods or cuisines. Perhaps sample a Greek salad (like they serve at the Athens Grand Resort) or experiment with a healthy stir fry meal. If you're a regular TV or DVD watcher, try some new shows or movie genres that you don't normally watch or don't watch anything at all. If you hardly ever see your neighbors because you feel you don't have the time, use your stay-cation to get to know them a little better. You can form a SVS support group, if you like.

4. Pretend you're a tourist in your home town. Though your hometown might not seem all that exciting to you, try to view it from the eyes of someone who's never been there before. Go for walks if you usually drive or take public transportation and take a look at the sights around you. Catch a ball game if you live in a city that hosts a team, visit a historical museum, or go to the zoo. Be sure to pick up some nifty souvenirs from these places; the more obscure the better (in other words, not the typical Red Sox jersey, Cardinals hat, or Statue of Liberty memento). Send someone a postcard. Be sure to complete the experience by taking pictures of the local sights, your family, and your friends and post them with imaginative captions to Facebook (like a picture of your front yard labeled "Least Expensive Hotel Room in X"). Though checking your email on vacation can help stave off disaster should something bad happen while you're away, on your stay-cation you should try living off the grid for a while.

Staycation5. Start planning a fantasy vacation. Explore all the dream spots you would like to visit by charting out a few itineraries online. Maybe take a stroll to your local library and flip through some travel guides. Don't even think about what's realistic and what's not. You can even engage friends or family members to join you in the planning and as a result, you can do some fantasy vacation bonding. The fantasy vacation can help alleviate some of your SVS symptoms but it can also tell you a lot about yourself and your own value system. For instance, is your fantasy vacation one in which you stay at those luxury hotels or would you rather go camping and backpacking? What type of place best fits your own vision of yourself-on-vacation? This might be an interesting voyage of self-discovery all on its own.

By the time your stay-cation comes to an end, your SVS will be cured. You can feel as energized, and recharged as if you'd gone away and perhaps even more well-rested. Though your souvenirs may not be as exotic, you'll be "returning" with some new experiences and ideas that can boost your fulfillment for months if not years to come.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010

References:

Kwortnik, R.J., Jr. & Ross, W.T., Jr. (2007). The role of positive emotions in experiential decisions. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 24, 324-335.

Van Boven, L. & Ashworth, L.(2007). Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 289-300.