Hacking your brain with Active Vacations

silhouette photo of a person running on road
Photo by Lucas Favre on Unsplash

Background

Nine out of ten times, asking somebody how their vacation was, the response is along the lines of: “good, but too short!”.

And you know what? They are right; at least from their point of view. Or, to be more precise, from their emotional point of view.

On the other hand, I’m sure you’ve heard of the phenomenon where people describe things that lasted less than a second as if they took hours. And again, they’re right! From the experiencing point of view, it really DID feel that way.

So what’s the catch? There are multiple things at play here but most important one is — our brains are heavily flawed. As in – heavily! I’m sure it might come as a surprise to some of you but hey, stick with me and you’ll see.

Two most important things that are at play, are:

  1. How we experience things under heavy adrenaline rush, and
  2. How our brains memorize the experiences

Number one is what anybody who ever had any kind of accident can tell you – your brain turns into a fight (or flight) mode and processes every microsecond, which is kind of a survival mechanism really. Again, if you’ve ever been close to having a car accident and manoeuvred yourself out – that’s it.

But I’ll focus on a more interesting one – how we memorize experiences.

How we memorize experiences

Let me tell you about an experiment that Daniel Kahneman describes in his (most) famous book – Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman and his colleagues gathered a group of people, and asked them to dip their hands in an ice-cold water (14C / 59F) for 60 seconds.

Next, they repeated the experiment, but this time, after 60 seconds, they increased the water temperature by one degree (15C / 60F) and they kept it that way for another 30 seconds, totalling in 90 seconds of discomfort (30 secs longer than the previous experiment).

Aftwerwards, participants were asked to rate the level of discomfort they felt in each case. And, what blew my mind was — almost EVERYBODY said that the SECOND experience was way more pleasant than the first one! Yes, even though it lasted 50% MORE than the first one, most of the people preferred THAT one over the shorter one. Isn’t that crazy?

There is a name for this phenomena (or, shall I rather say cognitive flaw). It’s called a peak-end rule:

The peak–end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The effect occurs regardless of whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant. According to the heuristic, other information aside from that of the peak and end of the experience is not lost, but it is not used. This includes net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted. The peak–end rule is thereby a specific form of the more general extension neglect and duration neglect.

Source: Wikipedia

Crazy, right? But if you really stop and think about it, you’ll see that it makes sense. Let me give you an example. Think of some tedious lecture that you attended in high school. I’m sure that you could name a few, but probably can’t remember specific instances as many are blurry.

Now, just imagine if, during one of those boring lectures, someone released a horrendously loud fart. Phewwwwwwt.

I guarantee you, you’d remember that instance clearly till your last fuckin’ breath! And you’d probably laugh to it and relive it every single time as if it happened yesterday!

What’s at play here? The peak-end rule, of course! And you know what?

What loud fart is to a boring lecture, the active vacation is to a passive one!

On Passive Vacations

What I refer to as “passive vacation” is the kind of vaca where you take time off to do pretty much nothing. Either just go and lay on the beach, or spend 10 days watching Netflix.

It doesn’t really matter WHAT it is, as long as there are no peak experiences, I call that a passive vacation.

Now, does that make it bad? Absolutely not! Quite the contrary to be honest. Sometimes what we really need is couple of weeks of not doing a damn thing!

But what’s kind of shitty about it is the artefact of it. The end result. You surely do feel rested and recharged, which is great, but if you THINK about it, nine out of ten times you’d probably feel like “well, it was few days too short”.

It’s the exact same feeling when you binge watch the tv show over the weekend. Did you enjoy it? For sure! But what’s lacking is the PEAK of it. The experience! Something memorable! And that’s exactly what active vacations do.

On Active Vacations

Look, I can absolutely understand why people dislike even thinking about them. Like, “I’ve been busting my ass six days a week for year(s) and the last thing that I need is having to wake up and buzz around during my vacation! Hell no!”.

I get it. And there’s some truth to it. Active vacations take time and energy for sure. Most of the time they are physically (and sometimes mentally) exhausting, which is pretty much the last thing that you need when you are overworked.

So why do it then?

Because they are MEMORABLE!

They are full of those peaks that you will take to the grave! They are the generators of those stories you will be telling to your grandchildren, all while relieving them in full, over and over again!

And the best thing? They feel like they lasted for ages!

Let me share one of my recent experiences here. Not so long ago, my GF and I took a 5 day vacation and in those 5 days we visited Eastern Serbia (Djerdap Gorge) and drove all the way to west – to Sarajevo. Kind of vacation that pretty much everybody wonders why the heck we actually did it and why we didn’t simply stick to one part of the country.

But here’s a fun thing – aside the fact that we enjoyed every single moment, I literally remember us taking a break from a heavy walk and, almost at the same time exclaiming: “it feels like we’ve been doing this for WEEKS now! Feels good!”.

And that exactly is the artefact that I’m talking about. And that’s exactly why we took 10 days of vacation to drive 2.000 kilometers (a bit over than 1.200 miles) all over Crete!

The aftermath of an active vacation is that it feels like it lasted perfectly enough!

How to do Active Vacations?

I want to stress out that what I’m going to suggest is only MY POINT OF VIEW and SHOULD NOT be taken as a general prescription! Treat it as a guideline, not a rule.

  1. Come up with (one or more) destinations that you want to visit — Ideally you should have a clear idea of WHERE you want to travel.

    For example, if it’s Greece that you want to visit, then google for “Best Greek islands for _______ (whatever it is that you are looking for; e.g. hiking or beach hopping)”.
  2. Forget about travel agencies — they are GREAT for offloading that work off your back but you learn nothing if you let someone else do your homework!

    So, once you choose the destination, start googling for “places to visit in (destination)” or “things to do in (destination)”. I usually prefix all my searches with “reddit” (e.g. “reddit places to visit in Crete”). This is because I found Reddit to be full of valid first-hand experiences that I love.

    If you are planning to fly there — Google Flights is your friend. If you’re going by car (which I prefer to avoid honestly), then google for “itinerary from (your home) to (destination)”.
  3. Search for accommodation — I usually rely on Booking.com most of the time, but a lot of people prefer Airbnb. Reason why i stick to Booking.com is because I left so many reviews there that I’m a Level 2 member now, which comes with some perks like discounts, free breakfasts, free room upgrades, etc. (hint: it pays to become a Level 2 Member there!).

    One word of advice – if you are visiting a place where you need to rent a car (which is hopefully something that you’ve figured out by browsing Reddit for “things to do in (destination)”, NEVER EVER book a place in a town center. NEVER! Unless you enjoy spending hours trying to find parking spot.

    On the other hand, if you are going by foot, then DEFINITELY go for centrally located places! Being in center usually means quick access to all the BEST modes of transport you can find out there.

    Oh, and ALWAYS read reviews for the place that you are about to book! Always! And ALWAYS sort them by “Newest”! Most of the websites will show you “Most relevant” comments which kind of can be problematic occasionally.
  4. Always sleep on it! — be it an accommodation, a flight or a destination that you want to visit, I’ve learned that it’s best to resist that urge to “close the deal immediately” and to literally spend a night sleeping on it. This saved my ass on multiple occasions where I believe I would have booked some really dumb flights and accommodations.
  5. Look for other people’s itineraries — this is probably one of THE BEST things I’ve learned. Just googling for “(destination) itinerary” (e.g. “Crete 7-day itinerary”) will deliver so much results and probably open up so many things that you had no clue about! This is how I’ve learned about the concept of “island hopping” and ended up visiting 5 Thailand islands in three weeks (and loved it!)
  6. Enjoy!

One might wonder (and rightfully so) — isn’t this demanding and potentially a waste of time? Why not simply go to a travel agency, make a booking and let them do all the heavy work?

Again, you surely can do it, but my opinion on it is really simple. Do you happen to know why IKEA is so successful? Because they figured out that people have way bigger emotional connection to things that they build themselves! And it’s the same thing with vacations — you will appreciate those vacations way more than ones that are pre-booked and pre-defined for you 🙂

Summary

  • Our brains are flawed and operate under “peak-end” rule
  • Passive vacations are usually NOT memorable because the involvement and emotional activation is close to zero
  • Active vacations force you to be involved, mentally, physically and emotionally; and that’s why you remember them
  • So, forget the traveling agencies, do your own itinerary, make your bookings and enjoy the heck of it!

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2 thoughts on “Hacking your brain with Active Vacations

  1. I know you wrote “How to do Active Vacations?” based on your POV, but I can’t resist to add an advice from my side. This became THE MOST important point for me, when planning a vacation:
    Make sure you and your partner, friend, whoever is included in that vacation are on the same page. Meaning, you both have to have a need for active vacation, in order to make it work 🙂

    Great article, btw! 😀

    1. You know, that’s actually a VERY VERY VERY valid point!!! I actually do remember of an instance where we had … well “mixed energies” would be a right way to put it, I guess.

      So you are absolutely right! Discussing this IN ADVANCE is probably one of the most important things to do.

      But I’m also guilty as charged to be honest. There were days where I’d be super grumpy because of all the crazy plans that I’ve made haha, but I guess I conveniently forgot about it.

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