You did it. You took a two-week vacation, bravely discounting the office martyrs who quipped that they could never take so much time.

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You did it. You took a two-week vacation, bravely discounting the office martyrs who quipped that they could never take so much time.

But how do you keep the happy feeling of floating in a warm ocean or backpacking through a silent forest with nothing to worry about? Even if you were only gone for a week, it might be hard to keep smiling when people realize you are back at work and haven’t yet responded to your 300 emails.

How long the happy vacation afterglow lasts may depend on whether you have taken a vacation just to recover from your job or whether you have engaged in truly fun and memorable experiences. There is a difference, says Seattle mental-health and vocational counselor Thomas Auflick.

“The whole transition back to work is interesting and plays into your general health to begin with,” says Auflick. “If all you can do is just recover from work, you may need to ask yourself if you are really in the right job or if maybe you are just overworked and need to think about adjusting something in your life.”

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Auflick just returned from a road trip that lasted over two weeks. The relaxing break made him think about how he would be able to maintain the healthy lifestyle he had on vacation after he got back to his normal routine. “How can you make sure you’re eating right and getting enough sleep?” It makes a big difference, he says.

Schedule something fun

One suggestion is to schedule some enjoyable activities for when you return, so you might actually want to come back. That way it’s not all laundry and missed phone calls. It helps to have something fun to look forward to, he says.

He also recommends immediately researching the next getaway. “Planning your next trip keeps you alive during regular life,” says Auflick. And it could be that anticipation is most of the fun.

In a 2010 study out of the Netherlands published in the Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life, researchers measured happiness levels both before and after a trip. Compared to those who were not trip-planning, the planners were much happier.

The study also found that only a “very relaxed” holiday trip significantly boosted happiness when people came home. This boost lasted for about two weeks, sometimes longer.

‘Mountain of work’

Forty percent of us won’t take all of our vacation days, based on a study last year by the U.S. Travel Association, and we are statistically taking less time off. One of the most cited reasons Americans give for ditching their hard-earned time is that they do not want to return to a mountain of work.

Our own fears about how awful things may be when we come back could be getting in the way of taking time off. Auflick recommends giving yourself a break when you return.
It’s fine to take it slow to get back up to speed, maybe even building in a buffer of a day or two before going back to work. Then not pushing yourself too hard once you get there.

Armed with all I had learned, I took a vacation in the middle of the work week to visit Cannon Beach so I could see how long I could keep that vacation feeling.

Back in my office, I pushed aside paperwork with urgent sticky notes to make room for a bouquet of roadside dahlias in a mason jar that I bought on the drive home. I propped a vintage postcard of the beach right next to it. The happiness effect seemed to wilt after only two days.

I guess it is time to plan the next vacation.