Meaningful holidays make happy memories

Holidays are great. But it’s how we do it that’s killing us. Oh, and how was yours?

For those of you who didn’t manage a two-month extravaganza criss-crossing the world, don’t feel bitter. The Psychologist (British Psychological Society) states that the best holidays are three to six days long. I don’t believe their research includes people who travel across continents – the time difference alone sets you back you a couple of days, and that’s without “acclimating” (must be said with strong American accent). But it’s still worth noting that the benefits of holidays – well-being and so on, versus the cost and stress of wrapping up work or home-life to get started – seem to be best balanced by these short sojourns.

I’m happy to know this because this year, in a 180-degree contrast to my last few summers, when I went on across the world types, my boys and I had a staycation – the reasons are many, including red-tape and visa issues for my Ethiopian son – but it was great. It meant we actually slowed down. Pending jobs involving tonnes of paperwork were (mostly) done and we invented rituals that helped us through the heat and lack of social outlet. We also did things like put up a tent inside the house and lots of art.

The three to six-day finding above makes me feel that we haven’t really missed out. Plus we forget – all too easily – what really happens on a holiday.

One of the things we did was go through photographs of glorious holidays long past, like the one two summers ago. My older son, who was present, couldn’t remember much detail – OK, so he was seven at the time – but he’s not the exception. He recalls the whitewater rafting, ziplining through the jungle and other fabulous things.

This is the peak end rule: thankfully, we judge experiences on how we felt at its peak – at the most intense, and hopefully best, moment. I hope the boys look back at this summer with one significant super happening as the overriding memory – that’s pretty much all that’s needed to set it in holiday gold category.

The other thing we do is invent things. We believe things happened that didn’t at all. Which again can be great for our mental well-being because we can look back at time away and have phenomenal, if not entirely true, things to say about it. I’m sure your family is full of super examples of this.

The good news is, and this is where we missed out, that holidays are not only great when we reminisce. We really do have a good time when we’re on them – most of the time. To help us get to grips with what happens in situ is the very important holiday happiness curve. It breaks down mood swings.

Here’s what happens: people are less happy during the first 10 per cent of their holiday – probably induced by preparing, packing and travel. Then, 10 to 80 per cent into the holiday, people are in a “high mood” as tourism scholar Jeroen Nawijn of NHTV Breda University puts it, with a mood dip again during the 80 to 90 per cent of holiday, but a rejuvenation and better moods reported during the last 10 per cent of the trip means that holidays tend to end on a high.

Now to the cost part: the average UK family spends the equivalent of two months’ salary on a two-week break somewhere in Europe. That’s a lot of money.

We expats tend to spend a packet because we’re piggy in the middle: there’s the duty trips to see family and be present for significant occasions such as weddings or births and death. Then there’s your own nuclear family and the desire to create special memories. Plus let’s face it, it gets a tad hot and ghost-towny over the long school holidays.

One overriding memory of my last long holiday was sitting down weeks after and going through the scrunched-up receipts in many currencies – we had done Dubai, Turkey, Dolomites, Nice, UK and Dubai. The year before it was Dubai, Turkey, US, Panama, Turkey and Dubai.

I tell you one thing, I will never again do those sorts of trips – the cost is insane, especially when you can’t book in advance, I had been in limbo over adoption-related dates both summers, plus you are consuming yourself instead of getting in touch. The month in Panama was the best bit because we were still, in that we didn’t have to catch lots of planes, and we were active – doing all sorts of sporty and outdoorsy things, and with no family there, it was without duty.

I keep a diary and my children do too. I hope they don’t lose them and can look through them in years to come, remembering things and how they felt. That’s the best kind of holiday- one that you can revisit over and over again.

One thing I’m going to do moving forward – and not just say I will – is take short three to six day holidays. They needn’t be expensive, and will keep me and mine on an even mental keel throughout the year.

Don’t just go on a holiday – be on a holiday, and keep the memories alive. That’s when it’s really worth it.

Nima Abu Wardeh describes herself using three words: Person. Parent. Pupil. Each day she works out which one gets priority, sharing her journey on

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