Wellness·4 min read

How Vacation Affects Your Happiness: The Benefits of Travel on Your Mental Health

Open packed suitcase
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Unsplash
January 20, 2022

“Taking a trip” has meant walking from the couch to the bathroom for different portions of the last two years. As we enter a new phase of a global pandemic, the prospect of travel may seem tenuous — but vacation is crucial for your mental health and happiness.

What are the latest guidelines? 

First things first: Get vaccinated before traveling. And BYOM — masks are required in the airport and on planes. If you test positive, avoid travel for a full 10 days after your symptoms start (or after your first positive test if you have no symptoms). If you’re traveling internationally, you may be required to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test. For the CDC’s latest travel guidelines go here

I’m comfy on my couch. Why should I go away? 

Because variety is the spice of life and daily itineraries. Thing to know: Americans left a total of 768 million days of PTO on the table in 2018, according to research released by the US Travel Association. Because a global pandemic doesn’t exactly inspire travel, we have to re-learn how to take time off — and for ourselves. 42% of women in the US said they felt burned out often or almost always in 2021, according to a recent McKinsey & Co. report. There are a bunch of reasons why taking time off is good for your mental health and general well-being — and depending on your excuses, those reasons vary. 

For the person who’s “too busy” to take time off…

Turn WFH into OOO. In 2020, with many offices going remote, the average work day lengthened by about an hour — and workers did not take more time off to balance the scales. If you have too much on your plate, start small: Take “micro breaks'' throughout the day. A 2018 study showed that these can lead to improved mood and job performance. Step two: Think like a local (because you are one) but make like a tourist. Dine out(side) at a restaurant you’ve been wanting to try, sign up for a walking tour, or check out a park or trail in your neighborhood. You can then work your way up to a vacation by turning your weekend into a long weekend. Anddd now you’re getting more comfortable with taking time off. 

For the person who’s scared to break from their routine…

Routine can easily turn into a rut. Researchers have found that people who seek out new experiences — like traveling to new places, eating new foods, and learning new languages — also improve their cognitive function and flexibility (That’s your brain’s ability to seamlessly jump between different ideas, which is key for creativity.). So buy that ticket. Your neuroplasticity — aka your brain’s ability to change and adapt with time — will thank you. And so will your mental health. One study found that people who participated in leisure activities — including vacation — had more positive emotions and fewer instances of depression.

For the person worried about COVID…

Keep hitting refresh on those CDC guidelines. So much of what’s advisable depends on your personal situation — whether you’re vaccinated, immunocompromised, living with vulnerable relatives, etc. Make the choice that’s right for you, knowing that the mental health benefits of travel may very well outweigh the potential risks of getting COVID. And you can choose a COVID-friendly travel option, like a drivable destination, remote beach, or camping. 

For the person who feels sluggish post-vacay…

Find your length. Happiness research suggests that eight days may be the ideal time for a vacation — justtt enough to unplug while not so much time that you feel disoriented coming home.

For the person who says travel is too expensive… 

It ain’t cheap. But it pays off more than other purchases. One Cornell study found that over time, people’s satisfaction with material items decreased, while their satisfaction with experiences increased. Even though you can’t hold a trip in your hands. For budget travel tips, we Skimm’d how to OOO without the ‘oh no.’  


The excuses are long, but the trip is short. Take it, and your mental health will thank you later. 

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