Twenty-three years ago, my wife and I argued about how to celebrate our first anniversary. Money was tight, and we had to choose between taking a beach vacation or buying a couch, which we did not have. Being a Spaniard, she naturally advocated for the beach.
As a thrifty American, I argued for the couch because it was permanent. In the end, we compromised - we went to the beach.
Vacations say a lot about people.
For one thing, where people choose to go indicates how much they like to be around others.
In new work in the Journal of Research in Personality, psychologists from the University of Virginia quizzed college students about their geographical preferences and found that introverts prefer the mountains while extroverts prefer the ocean.
Research cited by the Harvard Business Review shows that people derive little to no happiness boost from vacations they perceive as stressful. Jam-packed itineraries and tight connections may look exciting on paper, but they could end up meaning you return no happier than when you left.
The researchers found more evidence for this when they looked at who actually lives where: Residents of especially mountainous states were more introverted on average than their counterparts who live in flatter places.
This finding is fairly intuitive. In the mountains one finds seclusion and isolation, while beaches are crowded and full of semi-nude strangers, a potentially unappealing scene for introverts but exactly the point for extroverts.
There's a surprising amount of research on holidays, and what aspects are satisfying. To start, the planning tends to bring happiness. Research in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life shows people derive most of the happiness from their vacations in the planning phase. On its own, this finding would seem to recommend lots of planning time and the creation of a complex itinerary, rather than a spontaneous getaway.
But if byzantine, hyper-planned trips bring great joy in the planning, they risk yielding almost no happiness in the taking.
Research cited by the Harvard Business Review shows people derive little to no happiness boost from holidays they perceive as stressful. Jam-packed itineraries and tight connections may look exciting on paper, but they could end up meaning you return no happier than when you left.
Only people with simple, relaxed trips seem to get a happiness boost. Think of this as the Vacation Paradox: You have to choose between being happy beforehand, or happy afterward. Sorry.
Whether people take a vacation at all says a bit about career success, but the relationship is the opposite from what one might think.
A study by Project: Time Off, a research-driven initiative from the US Travel Association, shows American workers in 2013 forfeited 169 million days of paid time off, worth US$52.4 billion (S$73.5 billion).
What was the career benefit? Negative, according to the study.
Those who left between 11 and 15 days unused were 6.5 per cent less likely to receive a raise or bonus than those who used all their vacation days. We don't know if this is because the vacation-less employees were overstressed, or because incompetent employees who couldn't get their work done skipped vacation. But this does indicate that holiday takers are not paying a career price.
Vacations also say a thing or two about one's country of origin.
In the United States, the icebreaker conversation topic with a stranger is usually, "What do you do for a living?" In Europe, this would be about as interesting and relevant as, "Do you floss every day?" No, for Europeans, the fallback topic is always, "Where are you going on holiday this year?" Everyone has an answer, usually involving weeks and weeks at the beach or mountains.
The data on vacation provides support for the aphorism that Americans live to work, and Europeans work to live.
The average private sector American worker is offered just 16 days of paid vacation each year and has no legal guarantee to any time off. Compare this with employees in Italy, who get 31 days, Spain (34 days), and Portugal (35 days).
You might be rolling your American eyes at these statistics, noting, for instance, Spain's 23 per cent unemployment rate. But having lived in Spain for years, I can assure you that calling attention to the relationship between mandated voluntary idleness and involuntary idleness, or unemployment, elicits reactions that run from confusion to contempt. So just keep it to yourself, and get back to work.
Finally, for children, summer vacation has an effect on their performance at school.
In 1996, researchers at the University of Missouri and Tennessee State University found that the average student loses a month of academic progress during summer vacation, with the biggest impact on poor kids, who lost significantly more reading ability than those from middle-income families.
Obviously there are other goals for the summer, but you have to ask whether our rigid, century-old summer vacation system is really serving students as well as it could.
So what does your vacation say about you? Personally, I've made my peace with vacations over the years, so we're going away this month - but not a Spanish month away; just a respectable American 10 days.
Lacking a consensus on whether we like people or not, we will go to both the mountains and the beach. And when we return, the kids - slightly less literate - will park themselves on the couch we finally bought.
NEW YORK TIMES