How to make the most of your holiday

Melina Kiefer
How to make the most of your holiday without increasing costs and carbon emissions further - according to behavioural economics.

 While a repeated, predictable holiday may comfort our ‘experiencing’ selves, we rob future satisfaction from our ‘remembering’ selves. 

Our holidays are one of the largest discretionary investments we make. It therefore makes sense to squeeze out every drop of happiness from the holiday dollars we spend. 

However, the way to do that may not be as intuitive as we think. That’s where Behavioural Economics comes in. Behavioural economics, pioneered by the late, great Daniel Kahnemann, is the study of psychology, and how it relates to our economic decision-making.

‘Classical’ economics assumes humans to be rational actors. Behavioural economics depicts a more relatable picture of the human mind; one that is emotional, biased, and with a limited ability to process information. 


Most notably, humans are especially bad at predicting what will make us happy. So when it comes to using our precious time off, a little scientific guidance could help us to make the most out of the holidays we work so hard to take.  

Here are some tips offered by behavioural psychologists to help you make the most of your precious time off. 

A last-minute holiday booking may give you a surge of impulsive adrenaline. However, if we want to really gain the maximum psychological benefit from our holidays, science suggests that increasing our lead time is a must. 

Behavioural economist Dan Areily points out that actually taking the holiday is not just about the week, or two weeks you book off. It is about the build-up, the holiday itself, and our memories of it. 

Anticipation matters far more than we think. That’s perhaps why we are generally far happier on a Friday night than on a Sunday night. 

That’s because anticipation occurs in the cerebellum, one of the oldest parts of our brain. Anticipation is an evolutionary benefit; it allows us to seek and take full advantage of future benefits. This is borne out in the research; this study shows that the participants were generally happier before a trip, than after it. 

In summary, book far in advance and revel in the anticipation. 


Science shows that humans tend to prefer comfort and security over risk and novelty when making decisions. 

While this may have helped to keep us safe in the wild, it can also lead us to return to the same holiday destinations and relive the same experiences. One percent of holidaymakers return to the same destinations. 

 While a repeated, predictable holiday may comfort our ‘experiencing’ selves, we rob future satisfaction from our ‘remembering’ selves. 

Here’s the problem: repeated holiday experiences tend to blur and become far more forgettable. In his seminal work ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Kahnemann differentiates between the ‘remembering’ and ‘experiencing self’.

While a repeated, predictable holiday may comfort our ‘experiencing’ selves, we rob future satisfaction from our ‘remembering’ selves. Ultimately, we spend far more time with our memories of holidays than on the holiday itself. 

Indeed, comfort and predictability quietly rob us of the best experiences we could have. It is often the high-effort, high-satisfaction experiences that we remember. 

A choice between a challenging hike up a mountain with a magnificent view as a reward or a morning spent on a sunlounger will be the former that features more prominently in our mental recap of the holiday. 

Equally, our brain is hard-wired to purge memories of pain and treasure memories of pleasure. In short, your memory of your sore legs will be eclipsed by the memory of the satisfaction of completing a summit or learning about elephant migration patterns in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. 

In summary, cater to our ‘remembering selves’, and don’t let comfort ruin your precious time off.   


Consider two patients at the hospital. The first has an operation that is moderately painful throughout but is considerably less sore at the end. The second suffers minimal discomfort throughout the operation but experiences a peak in pain at the end. 

Objectively, the first patient suffered more pain. However, the second patient will report their entire experience as more painful. This may sound counter-intuitive. However, this result is based on a study by Daniel Kahneman and Redelmeier 1996. 

The reason is that our memories are not continuous but episodic. Therefore, we remember ‘peak’ experiences and find it easier to recall more recent ones. 

The lesson for holiday-makers? When scheduling your holiday, don’t necessarily think of permanent comfort, but rather in terms of ‘high points’. And more importantly, schedule the most exciting aspects of your holiday towards the end of your trip. 

In summary, plan for peak experiences at the expense of comfort and ‘end high’.

While reams of research are done on how to optimize our work schedules, much less attention is paid to optimising our ‘leisure time’. Yet our time spent on vacation is precious and defines how we perceive our entire lives. 

By paying attention to the psychological mechanics of holiday-making, we can turn merely good holidays into unforgettable ones.

This Author 

Daniel Kaul is the founder of Natucate, an agency specialising in organising selected projects for nature travel, wilderness experiences, voluntary work, internships and sabbaticals.

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