Power of patience: why waiting to travel the world may actually be a good thing

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Cast your mind back to when you were a kid counting down to Christmas. December seemed to last forever as you worked through your advent calendar and wrote lengthy letters to Santa Claus. Then finally – finally – the big day arrived. Yet somehow, it was never quite as magical as the run-up led you to believe. Maybe you were overtired, or didn’t get the right gift; but the buzz couldn’t match the excitement you felt with Christmas ahead of you. As adults, this anticipatory habit persists: but it’s less to do with actual events being a let-down: rather, the expectation of them is the most fun part of all. 

Take 2010 research from social scientists based in the Netherlands, which found that planning a holiday can make you happier than actually taking it. Vacationers questioned in the study reported a higher degree of pre-trip happiness than at any other stage of their holiday; likely because of the joy that comes with anticipatory excitement. 

It’s written in the weeds of human nature that we prefer to look forward to an event rather than back on it. Doing so drums up a unique kind of positive expectation and excitement in our psyche. Moreover, as much as we crave novel experiences, we also get used to them very easily. So if we travel too much, it risks becoming a task like anything else in life. 

So, while the lockdowns of the past two years have been far from ideal, there is a glimmer of a silver lining on the horizon. Because, by being made to wait to travel the world, we may actually enjoy it more when it finally happens. Here’s why. 

Travel less, savour more

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Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then a kind of casual disregard. Though as humans, we’re hard-wired to crave novelty, our “remarkably flexible” minds allow us to adapt to new situations and settings quickly. This, in turn, means that what once was new and exciting – things, places, experiences – can rapidly become predictable and repetitive

If we want to really savour the moment, a constant supply of novel experiences are required. Experiencing something new, whether that’s a skill, an activity, or a place, is indeed so powerful, it can appear to slow down time. 

“In my mind there is only one way to slow time: seek novelty,” says David Eagleman, neuroscientist at Stanford University (as reported in Popular Science). “The reason this works is because new experiences cause the brain to write down more memory, and then when you read that back out retrospectively, the event seems to have lasted longer.”

Running parallel to this is the idea that the more someone travels, the higher their expectations become: and so that base level of happiness sparked by a trip becomes harder to achieve. In other words, there may really be too much of a good thing.

In their co-authored book Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, Dr. Dunn and Michael Norton predict that “the more people travel, the less likely they are to savor each trip”. 

Explaining their findings to the New York Times, Dr. Dunn explains how she has explored the concept that “an abundance of desirable life experiences may undermine people’s ability to savor simpler pleasures”. 

The upshot of this in terms of the current situation with Covid is that once we can travel freely again, even modest, less wow-worthy holidays will bring us more satisfaction and pleasure in the short-term. “The happiness reset won’t last forever,” Dr. Dunn tells the Times. “We’ll ramp up our expectations again. You might as well take advantage of this moment.”

Focus on the big picture

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Having to wait for a holiday not only makes us appreciate it more, the mere act of patience can be beneficial in itself. In today’s on-demand culture, we’ve fallen out of the habit of waiting for – well, anything. Standing in a Post Office queue can seem to last an eternity in a world where we can order any product, stream a TV show, or arrange a date, all at the swipe of a thumb. 

It’s a shame, though, because that patience can have a powerful impact. In a 2007 study by Fuller Theological Seminary professor Sarah A. Schnitker and UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons, the researchers found that patient people tend to experience fewer negative emotions; possibly because they’re able to cope better with unexpected events. 

In a follow-up paper in 2012, Schnitker also discovered that patient people put more effort towards their goals in life, and are more satisfied when they achieve them, compared to less patient people. As a result, they are more content with their lives as a whole. 

Biding your time, then, can help you stay focused on the end game; you’re better able to stay tuned with what it is that you want to achieve  – including that trip of a lifetime.

Fuel for excitement and wellbeing 

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As well as helping us to focus, having to wait for a big event such as a holiday can also drive the kind of anticipatory excitement that is linked to a stronger sense of wellbeing. 

Reporting in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology in 2007, US researchers Van Boven and Ashworth described an experiment in which they measured people’s emotions before and after a positive event, including a ski vacation. Results showed that participants experienced more intense, evocative and generally more pleasurable feelings before the vacation, compared to looking back on it. 

According to Psychologies magazine, summarising the study, “Whether it’s choosing a new novel to read or planning a holiday to an exotic destination, we feel really good when we say, ‘Think about the enjoyment we’re going to have’ compared to, ‘Think about how much fun we had last time.’”

Separately, a 2005 study by MacLeod and Conway found a link between the anticipation of positive experiences and subjective wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that having lots of events to look forward to – whether that’s holidays, nights out with friends or a new course – creates a feel-good boost. 

Travel and the waiting game

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So, the evidence is in: waiting for great things in life makes us enjoy them more as a result. And the benefits that come from anticipation and patience are a feel-good boon of their own. One recent study even concluded that anticipating positive events can induce positive emotions to the extent that they help us to cope better with stress.

None of this makes the whole “waiting to travel game” any easier, of course. We’re still sat on our hands, itching to get out and wander the world, footloose and fancy-free. Oh, for a life pre-Covid.

But what this research does show is that waiting and anticipation aren’t necessarily bad things. Instead they will likely make that longed-for holiday that much sweeter – and ourselves easier to please – when things finally get back to normal. 

Good things come to those that wait, after all.

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