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The Perfect American Road Trip, According to Science

Friday, January 24, 2020

Traveling all around the United States is an exciting yet daunting vacation idea. It takes time and money, while not having an automatic guarantee that you’re going to have a good time. This isn’t even mentioning the fact that after your vacation, you’ll be tackling a big pile of backlog work once you get back in the office.

But since there’s solid evidence that vacation and employee satisfaction are correlated, it’s practically mandatory to have workers take a much-needed downtime. So how can you make sure that you’re getting the most out of your vacation and avoid time-consuming mistakes?

The first step, of course, is preparing for the trip well. If you’re planning to take a road trip across the country, you’re probably wondering what’s the best route to take.

Fortunately for you, Discovery News blogger Tracy Staedter asked the same question and tried to find the answer to her curiosity. To help with the search, Staedter collaborated with Michigan State University's doctoral student Randy Olson. The result was this map.

The map was created using an algorithm that considered several factors like turns, routes, and traffic levels. By following this guide, you’ll be able to travel around the United States and be ready to visit 50 landmarks efficiently.

The entire trip would take nine days of driving, although Olson said it’s actually around two to three months. Of course, if you don’t have that much time – say you only have two weeks’ worth of vacation – then you can still opt to visit a few states using the map.

Driving around the country while blaring your favorite music through your car’s speakers is one of the most relaxing things you can do during your travels. But this doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to have a good time. There have been thousands of people who went on vacation and came back still exhausted. Why is that? Well, evidence points at several culprits, among them are high expectations.

In a 2003 journal article published in The Psychology of Economic Decisions, it’s been found that one of the reasons why people come back stressed after a vacation is the combination of pressure and the expectation of finding happiness during the trip. The researchers said that people tend to monitor their happiness levels constantly during a vacation. And if the happiness they feel at that moment of introspection doesn’t coincide with their level of expectation before the trip began, then misery takes place.

However, the journal also pointed out that failing to recognize moments of elation when genuine joy arises is also detrimental since the person doesn’t appreciate the positive moment. This creates a paradox. If you monitor your happiness level, then you’re setting a high expectation for the trip. But if you don’t, you might fail to acknowledge that you’re already having a good time.

So what do the researchers suggest? Intermittent attention to one’s hedonic state, although the challenge here, is to know exactly when to conduct an introspection. From friends laughing around the table, a relaxing view of a sunset, the wind caressing your skin as the car zips through the interstate, standing on top of a cliff, to watching the crashing of waves below, all of these moments can be a source of happiness. These will mature as joyful memories once your vacation ends.
To bolster this thinking, you should also frame your mind in a way that genuine happiness isn’t fleeting but endures. A study titled “A Path to More Enduring Happiness: Take a Detour from Specific Emotional Goals” suggests that to attain lasting elation, a person needs to be general rather than specific.

One example is when buying a pricey purchase, say a mountain bike. The researchers noted that being specific here is when a person says, “I’m going to use this mountain bike to be a healthy person.”

And while this is an admirable goal to have, happiness from the purchase comes when the mindset alights on a more general expectation. So rather than being specific, someone might say, “With this new purchase, I’ll be a happier person who constantly rides a mountain bike.”

Applying this to the vacation mindset is no different. If you’re expecting to sip coffee by the pier and watch the sun dip itself on the ocean while you’re with the person you love, then you’ve already set the standard before the whole thing could take place. Any deviation from that expectation will shatter your envisioned moment. What if it rains during that day? Or something comes up that prevents you from fulfilling your desired outcome?

Managing your expectations is key. A road trip across the United States is going to be tedious and filled with unexpected delays. But if your mindset is wired to think that these delays are just detours that will add more memorable moments once your vacation ends, then you’re ensuring that you’re going to enjoy the trip no matter what.

It’s not a matter of spending a lot of money or going to some exotic island or dining at a fancy restaurant. It’s about indulging in the now, being present in the moment, where happiness might grace you with its presence.

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