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Holidays and our brainTraveling is like a bucket of soap for your brain

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Busy modern humans need a holiday more than ever. "Travelling is like a bucket of soap for your brain – a good cleaning for your brain", says Professor Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen. "It cleans, it refreshes. Provided you do it right".

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Ap Dijksterhuis (1968) is not only a psychologist and professor in travel and happiness, but also an experience expert. He has already seen the whole world, and he has a chronic form of 'wanderlust’: as soon as he comes home from his holiday, he looks forward to the next one. He wrote several books about it, including ‘People who (don't) travel are crazy’ from 2017 and 'Wanderlust’ from 2019. Dijksterhuis knows for sure: holidays make you happier. "It keeps our brains fresh, gives us more time and our heads a shakeup." Not only does he think so himself, research shows this: People who go on holiday are demonstrably happier before, during and after their trip than people who have no holiday plans. In advance because of the anticipations – this alone has a very strong effect; during because on holiday we live much more in the now, without worrying about the past or about the future. And afterwards because of the wonderful memories."

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What makes anticipation so powerful? 

That's because of the enormous influence of optimism on our sense of happiness – that you look forward to things to come. If you miss that, it has a negative effect; just think of elderly people who no longer feel like living and therefore physically deteriorate faster. Anticipation is a form of optimism: you have something beautiful to look forward to. This makes everything more fun."

Why is 'living in the now' so important? 

"Because it helps to refresh our brains tremendously. In the old days, when most people still did physical work, it was important to be able to lie in the sun and relax physically for two or three weeks in Spain. Nowadays we mainly work with our heads, we are swallowed up by our smartphones and burn-out is constantly lurking. Escaping from this requires a different environment where we can gain new impressions. This works like soap on your head. Provided you do it right, you shouldn't be playing with apps and stuff."

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A chronic form of 'wanderlust'

What's going to go wrong if we are constantly using apps and posting? 

"Travelling is immaterial – it's all about impressions and experiences. If you post photos all the time on holiday and see if you get enough likes, you're still making something material out of them. Something to impress, to show other people. While we've known from research for a long time: lots of posting won't make you happier, not posting will."

Travelling is immaterial

Does the length of the holiday matter?

"In principle, 'longer is better', but 'more often short' is even better. Because no matter how beautiful an environment is, if you see a lot of new things, you become saturated after a few days. "Pff, another temple!?" As a result, four short holidays work better for most people than once for a month."

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Is a long-distance journey more effective than a holiday close to home? 

It's about being in a different environment where a lot of things are fresh and new. This often works best in other cultures, further away from home. But if you don't like crowds, a week in Drenthe or on the coast can be just as good. In recent years, we have been looking for things closer to home more often. Flying less often, more often by train or car. Not out of 'flying shame', I prefer to call it 'flying guilt'. You're still responsible for what you do."

Does luxury still matter, or the money we spend on it?

"Money can help. If you can look forward to a comfortable holiday that you've booked, that's extra fun. Especially when you get a bit older; then at least you want a good bed or a private bathroom. But the impact is mainly in the mental state you reach. Let's get into it right now. And then reminisce about it. Because they don’t take away all those great memories.”

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