The secret of a good holiday — and it isn’t sunshine

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Category: Family Holidays and Weekends

The British summer: a time for French air traffic controllers to strike, bank holiday travel chaos, 50-mile tailbacks on the M5 and tired toddlers lying face-down in airports, screaming.

According to the Office for National Statistics, more and more of us are going abroad on holiday, and we are going for longer. Last year, we made 60 million trips, for an average of just over ten days. But is two weeks in the Dordogne making us happy? Is the non-stop rain in this country going to send us into a depression, and is sitting on a sunlounger the best way to relax? Could our holidays actually be making us unhappy?

“I have no doubt that holidays can cause more stress than they resolve,” says Dr Oliver James, a clinical psychologist and author of Affluenza, about an obsession with keeping-up-with-the-Joneses that can cause depression and anxiety. “People imagine that by changing their location, they can change everything they’re unhappy about,” he adds, “but as Alain de Botton said, the trouble is that when you go on holiday you take yourself with you. The problems in your relationships will still be there, and magnified in a great many cases.”

In theory, he concedes, holidays are A Good Thing: people who take regular ones have been shown to live longer and have better mental health, but they can also be problematic, he thinks, because too often they are about status. The middle-classes, in particular, feel under pressure to have a more impressive answer to the inevitable “What are you doing for the summer?” question, than “sitting on my arse in Dulwich hoping the rain stops’’. They book expensive holidays in far-flung destinations because they think they should, when actually they might have been happier in Wales. We are, says James, asking far too much of our holidays and we are on a treadmill of working too hard to pay for holidays we couldn’t otherwise afford and shouldn’t want.

“We’re idiots,” he says. “By the time we go on holiday we’re exhausted. You might be in paradise, but you can barely stand up. Then there’s the problem of actually having to play with your children, and get on with your partner, and the whole ‘Are we having fun yet?’ thing. We’re not in the right frame of mind to enjoy ourselves. We’ve forgotten how to have fun.”

Research by psychologists in Finland has turned on its head what most of us might imagine about our holidays. You might think that lying prone on a sunlounger in the Indian Ocean is the best way to relax — and frankly, I have a lot of sympathy with that view — but the reality is that, if you’re seriously stressed out, you’re better off doing something absorbing: learning to scuba dive, rock-climbing, painting in Umbria.

Whatever. Going to the same place every year might be comforting and familiar, but it’s also unstimulating. Longer holidays are not necessarily the answer: little and often might be better. Most depressingly, researchers in the Netherlands discovered that we are happier before our holiday than after. Anticipation, they discovered, made us far happier than reflection. It officially takes two days for us to start to relax, and our happiness peaks on the eighth day, which is a bit of a blow if you’ve only booked for a week. And what if you’re staying in Britain this summer, when it’s expected to rain until mid August?

“If you go on holiday and it’s raining, it’s more stressful than if you’re at home,” says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “You’re already coping with change, which is stressful in itself, and then you get a rush of negativity when it doesn’t turn out how you wanted. Holidays need to be an adventure that’s positive, whatever the weather, rather than something you’re trying to control. If you do that, it puts you right back into stress mode.”

I’m terrible at holidays so I don’t really take them. The last time I took a proper one, ie, a fortnight off, was January 2012. The rest of my holiday history is an unhappy mix of terrible weather, bad choices, horrible boyfriends — well, one horrible boyfriend, the rest were fine — and truly appalling packing. I once went to the Maldives in Uggs. Just Uggs. No other shoes, not even flip-flops. Another time, packing when drunk, I fetched up for a week-long work trip in India with 14 white T-shirts and no knickers.

My top tip? Don’t pack drunk. I have managed to turn off my emails while abroad only once, on that 2012 holiday. The first 24 hours are a bit cold turkey, but after that? You forget it exists. “But what about when you got back?” people say, looking worried. “Didn’t you have the most horrendous amount of unread emails reproaching you?” To which the answer is yes, I did — 974 to be precise. I deleted the lot without reading them, on the grounds that if it was important they’d try again.

So where is this summer’s most fashionable destination, the one that’s bound to impress your neighbours, should that be your aim? According to Julia Perowne, co-founder and director of travel PR consultancy Perowne Charles Communications, it’s not so much where you go as where you stay: people don’t want to go to big-brand hotels, she says, they want smaller, stylish boutique hotels, with good food and a bar scene.

“Our clients are rediscovering Burma and Java,” says James Jayasundera, founder and managing director of Ampersand Travel, suppliers of high-end cultural travel to the affluent middle classes. “We used to bore each other with our photos when we came back, but now we can do it immediately, so you get kudos if you’re doing something edgy that makes you look cool. Your friends might be in Spain, but you’re fishing with stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka, or looking at Komodo dragons in Indonesia.”

We are also, he says, delusional about what we actually want from our holidays, and how we intend to go about getting it. According to Perowne, the industry is changing to accommodate the fact that everyone is getting more demanding — because they can be. But it’s not necessarily making them happier.

“Some people shop incessantly online to try and get the best deals,” she says, “but it makes much more sense to have someone else check everything and do all the work for them. It’s a competitive market.”

“Everyone thinks they want to be much busier than they actually do,” agrees Jayasundera. “Our job is to make sure our clients don’t get there and realise they’re tired and they’ve arranged too much. Equally, going from being really busy to doing nothing is like cold turkey. And how we holiday has changed so much in my career: our notion of what is close and far is completely different and not necessarily rational. People are happy to fly to Bali for seven days, but not India. Why? It’s about the way we perceive distance. We’re not very logical when we think about holidays, we’re emotional.”

The lengths people go to have a good time are remarkable: Ampersand have been asked to organise a 70th birthday extravaganza involving 10 parties, over 10 days, for 150 people, in 10 Indian palaces. Then there was the client who wanted to walk all the most important ridge treks in Nepal, a trip which would normally take about four months. He only had seven days, so they helicoptered him to the start of the ridge every morning, and picked him up when he’d walked it every evening. Job done. And according to James, it will have made much him happier than sitting on that mythical sunlounger.

“There is scientific evidence that people who go on experiential holidays get more satisfaction from them,’’ says James. “Studies have shown that people get much more fulfilment from buying an experience than from buying an object. We need to wake up and smell the coffee. Get off the treadmill and create a life that is not all work and no play, and, he adds, “we need to get over this idea that there’s a fortnight a year when you’ll enjoy yourself, and the rest of your life is going to be hell’’.

Advice from the experts
• Do something you’ve never done
• Try not to dwell on negative thoughts about work
• Turn off your emails, and tell your colleagues and any important clients that you’re doing so. The world will not end
• Ease yourself back into work. Try not to go straight back to 12-hour days.
• End the trip on a high note, because that’s what studies have shown will remain with you: fly home in a nicer cabin, or splurge on the hotel for your last night
• Be reasonable in your expectations: the positive effects of holidays last no longer than a week
• Don’t try to book a complicated holiday yourself. The reason the world still has travel agents is because they know more than you, they will do a better job than you can, they don’t mind spending hours on the phone, and you will ultimately have a better holiday