As crazy as it may seem, your dream vacation or bucket list item(s) may be secretly decreasing your quality of life.
When you’re exhausted, stressed, and fed up, a vacation is the best medicine. But the type of vacation you end up take may profoundly affect your mood – and not always in a positive way. New research suggests that bucket list items and/or dream vacations may actually make you unhappy.
Your brain on social connection
Homo Sapiens were able to organize in larger numbers than their Neanderthal peers. (1) Even though Neanderthals were physically much larger than Homo Sapiens, the better organizational abilities of Homo Sapiens allowed your ancestors to flourish and the Neanderthals to perish. Thousands of years of evolutionary pressure has wired you to be a social creature.
Much like your ancient ancestors, your brain is hardwired for social connections. This is so strongly wired into your being that depression is thought to be a response to loneliness and/or social isolation. (2) If you think back to the days of your hunter-gatherer ancestors, their only chance of survival was collaborating with other members of the tribe. It’s a plausible explanation that the feelings of depression evolved from this era.
If you became separated or left your tribe, your chance(s) of surviving for long was markedly decreased. Depression may have been the driving force to compel you to rejoin your tribe. Johann Hari writes in great detail about depression and its connection to social isolation in his latest book, Lost Connections.
Similarly, your dream vacation may actually get in the way of the evolutionary pressure that compels you to connect with members of your tribe. Dream vacations or, once in a lifetime experiences, may actually increase social isolation (and therefore negative feelings) instead of improving your health and well-being. Let’s find out why!
How a once in a lifetime experience can make you miserable
You’re a social being. That much you know. Even you introverts out there need to connect with others in order to experience emotional/psychological health. But once in a lifetime experiences may actually work towards further isolating you from your social connections.
What you share amongst members of your tribe (close friends, family, etc) is a common experience. You understand or get each other because you’ve been through similar challenges or even helped each other through these challenges. Think of members at a CrossFit gym – they struggle through grueling workouts – together! This shared experience is what creates bonds and friendships not found in traditional gyms.
Similar tribal connections happen around just about any shared experience. Below is a brief list of activities, hobbies, and beliefs that unite humans together:
- Comic books.
- Game of Thrones.
- Keto diets; Paleo diets; Any diet plan, really.
- Car aficionados (which can be further subdivided by different makes and/or models).
The list is endless. Your shared interests connect you with other humans who share a similar point of view. This brings about a connection. And feelings of connectedness feel good. The polarization between Us and Them can help you feel connected to something greater than yourself. And this sense of purpose or belonging has been shown to very beneficial to your well-being. (3)
Unfortunately, this sense of belonging can also be brought to pathological levels. Consider fans of opposing sports teams. At times these fans can become so wrapped up in the Us vs Them mentality that physical violence ensues.
But what happens when you want to share an experience that no one else has tried? How does your dream vacation impact your social connections?
This is where social isolation can occur. If items on your bucket list are extreme, these activities can actually work against your mental well-being. Traveling to the furthest tip of the south pole in Antartica may be at the top of your bucket list. But if no one in your peer group has experienced anything similar, you’re going to have a difficult time connecting and relating over your trip.
You need to have shared experience amongst your social group. This is the glue that holds your connections together. Should you start pursuing extreme experiences, you isolate yourself from the group. And this can have unintended consequences.
How do researchers know that dream vacations will make you miserable?
In one clinical trial, researchers divided participants into two separate groups. Group 1 watched a highly regarded 4-star movie. Group 2 watched a rather crummy, poorly regarded 2-star movie.
After viewing the movies, participants were asked to rate their well-being on a 100-point scale. Obviously, those who watched the better movie had higher levels of well-being. No surprise there. But that’s when things got interesting. Researchers then took one viewer of the 4-star movie and had him/her participate in an unstructured conversation with three members of the 2-star movie group. (4)
It was in this conversation that social isolation occurred. The viewer of the 4-star movie had a better initial experience. But he/she was unable to connect in an engaging way with members of the other group. This lead to a significant decrease in his/her feelings of well-being. Meanwhile, those in the 2-star movie group experienced an increase in well-being once they connected with other members of the 2-star movie group. (5)
I’m sure you’ve all had an extraordinary experience in life. Something that was incredibly special to you. But what happened when you shared it with members of your tribe? Were you seen, heard, and accepted? Or, did the extraordinary experience lead to social friction?
Why you continue to pursue extraordinary experiences – even when they might make you miserable
It seems that all humans believe that an extraordinary experience will be amazing and that there’s no way it could possibly affect social interactions in a negative way. Sounds a lot like confirmation bias, doesn’t it?
A second study asked participants how they think they would feel after having been in the group that watched the 4-star movie. This study didn’t actually put participants through the movie viewing, it just had participants think about how they would feel after watching a 2-star or 4-star movie. Nearly every participant thought they would feel better watching the 4-star movie than the 2-star movie. Even when they were told about the social interaction afterward. (6)
It seems that we have ourselves convinced that an extraordinary experience will make us feel better. Even when the research suggests that’s not necessarily true. The social isolation that occurred in this study occurred over movie viewing – an activity that is far from extraordinary for those in the developed world. The thought is that a truly extraordinary experience has even greater potential to create a divide between you and your social group.
The mindset of pursuing the most extraordinary experiences can come with a social cost. All of us crave acceptance, belonging, and camaraderie. (7) The catch is that these feelings come more readily to those who fit in rather than those that stand out. Which leaves us with two competing desires:
- To do what other people have not yet done.
- To just be like everyone else.
These two desires are seemingly incompatible. So, how do you go about balancing the two?
How to have a dream vacation AND connect with your social group
The simplest solution would be to take your social group on vacation with you. But that’s far from practical. What is more realistic is to plan your vacation to have a mix of experiences. Make some of these experiences ones that your social group is familiar with. While other experiences should be aimed at your own goals/ambitions. This way, you can pursue your bucket list items and have experiences that connect you to your family and friends.
Have you noticed how you own things similar to your peer group?
Having similar experiences or items creates the opportunity for connection around those experiences or items. Think back to some of your past purchases. Were they influenced by friends or family?
There’s nothing negative about this phenomenon. As I’ve mentioned, humans have the most complex social networks of any species on the planet. Taking actions to better connect with your peers will make you happier. (8, 9)
If you’re completely against planning your vacations around your family, you can start looking to expand your social circles to include others who have ambitions similar to your own. You may not be able to connect over your vacation with your family, but your group of friends may have had incredibly similar experiences. In this case, share your experience with friends but direct your conversations with family towards topics that maintain shared interests.
The key here is inclusion. If you’re left feeling excluded or, if you exclude your own friends/family, there’s a signal for interpersonal rejection. (10) This is the feeling you’re trying to avoid. So, the next time you start planning a trip around the world, be mindful of how it may negatively affect your friends/family. Add in some experiences that you know you’ll be able to connect over. Research suggests this will improve your well-being.
Ok, now you’ve got a glimpse into the social complexity surrounding human interaction. Remember, nearly all the participants in the study wrongly assumed that a better experience would lead to more well-being. (11) It’s not a simple cause-effect relationship.
The connections you have with your social circles will greatly influence your well-being – arguably more so than the experience itself. So, be sure to keep your relationships in mind when you’re planning your next vacation!
Also published on Medium.