How to Plan Your Most Joyful Trip, According to a Happiness Expert

Laurie Santos’s Yale University course “Psychology and the Good Life” focuses on topics such as mindfulness and slowing down. Here’s how you can apply her teachings to your own travels.

How to Plan Your Most Joyful Trip, According to a Happiness Expert

“There are studies showing that people who have unscheduled time, and who commit to unscheduled time, tend to be happier overall than people who don’t,” says Yale professor Laurie Santos.

Illustration by Clare Mallison

In 2018, Yale professor Laurie Santos launched “Psychology and the Good Life,” a course meant to help stressed-out students live happier, more satisfying lives. The class quickly became the most popular in the university’s history. The concepts Dr. Santos teaches in her twice-weekly lectures—mindfulness, slowing down, socializing—can also make you a happier traveler.

How do you put what you teach into practice on the road?
When we travel, we’re not taking part in our usual routines, so it’s easy to try out new behaviors that can improve our well-being. We’re also faced with new places and experiences during travel, so it’s often easier to be mindful and notice things than it is in our daily lives. I try to savor the moment when I travel, because it’s easy to stay present in a new restaurant or place. I also like to savor the time affluence—free, unscheduled time—I get on trains and planes. I sometimes take breaks from work when I’m flying just to enjoy the time and be present. I like watching the world go by and paying attention. There’s nothing I have to get through on the plane the way I do in normal life.

Why is unscheduled free time so important to our well-being?
There are studies showing that people who have unscheduled time, and who commit to unscheduled time, tend to be happier overall than people who don’t. Overly scheduled time can make us feel anxious. Unscheduled time allows us to have more of a journey. There’s also work suggesting that when we have more open time, we tend to be more social. When you’re running from meeting to meeting, you don’t take the time to talk to the barista at the coffee shop—and those simple social interactions bring well-being, too. And because social science shows that we’re happier when we connect with others, I try to talk to new people during my travels. When flying, I’ll talk to anybody who happens to be near me. Also, that time when you’re waiting to get off the plane can be super boring, but having a little social interaction with somebody can really make the time fly by and make it more enjoyable.

How do you suss out if people want to talk or not?
There’s a study coauthored by behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley called Mistakenly Seeking Solitude, which examines the idea that people think that no one’s going to want to talk to them. But, in practice, people do want to talk to you—and they find it really enjoyable. It’s another one of these cases where our mind lies to us about the things we need. We think, “Oh, talking to this person next to me will be awkward or it won’t be that fun,” but in fact that’s just a mis-prediction. It’s always better than we expect.

What about when you are in the destination, what kind of small talk do you engage in?
Often just asking people for their recommendations. Talking to locals and hearing what they’re excited about, you can get so many better hints than you can on a travel-rating website. You might be asking them a question about a particular thing but they might suggest something you never even expected.

Is there a time that really stuck with you?
It’s not the big crazy ones, it’s the little ones that you appreciate. I was recently in San Francisco, and I was visiting the Museum of Ice Cream, this cool tourist destination. And that was really fun, just interacting with the other patrons in the museum. And I unexpectedly met a mom and her daughter who was there for her 10th birthday party, and so we were talking about things for kids to do in San Francisco. I also met a group who weren’t locals, but other travelers from North Carolina who had just recently graduated from college. You make these kinds of connections and it makes the place that you’re visiting come alive.

And it does cement the place in your memory a little more, right?
Yeah, I think when you have those conversations, then you see your experience through their eyes and you include it in your memories more. It can be a much richer experience.

“Americans seem to hate time affluence,” says Santos. “Going abroad can make you realize how much more it is valued in other countries.”

“Americans seem to hate time affluence,” says Santos. “Going abroad can make you realize how much more it is valued in other countries.”

Photo by Marie-Sophie Tékian

How would you describe the American attitude toward free time? And how does it compare to other countries’?
Americans seem to hate time affluence. As a country, we developed along the Protestant work ethic [which emphasizes industry and discipline]. Even people like Benjamin Franklin were kind of angry about people who were idle—they almost saw it as a sin. But the psychological data shows that’s an incorrect notion: You get a lot more out of free time than you expect. Going abroad can make you realize how much more it is valued in other countries. So when you’re traveling, try to drop that American mind-set. Linger a little longer in that restaurant, or take a siesta break.

When you observe other travelers, what advice do you want to give them?
You try not to do it in a judgmental way, right? But I definitely see people who I think are doing it wrong [laughs]. You’ve seen it: People are at this beautiful beach, and they’re on their phone, seemingly checking email. I want to say, You’re missing it. Don’t miss it.

Why do you think Americans tend to pack their travel itineraries?
Part of it is that we think we’re going to miss something. What we forget is that serendipity is what we’re really missing—it’s the things that aren’t on our itinerary that are important.

I feel like social media really gave rise to that: FOMO, as well as people wanting to visit the places they’ve seen on Instagram. Do you have any advice for people to combat that?
My husband’s uncle was in town, and he’d recently visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He said it’s hard to get close to the tower, or even see it, because hundreds of people are around it, pretending to push it for their Instagram posts. And it’s like, really? Does every single person who goes to Pisa need that photo? When you’re taking that, you might be missing the accents around you, or the smell, or other things. Photos can enhance our memories of an experience, but we miss out on all the stuff we’re not taking the photo of. Things that can be some of the most powerful parts of the experience.

What’s your strategy for hanging on to post-travel bliss?
Returning from a trip is a good time to savor what you most missed about home. For me, that’s my warm bed and my husband, who I miss terribly when I’m traveling. It can also be a good time to switch your habits and try something new. I’m actually doing it now. My house is under renovation, so my husband and I booked an Airbnb. I wake up in a different spot, I have a different routine, and I’m using [that change] to try and go to the gym more often. I have a two-week pass to this boxing sports club.

There’s a lot of research that suggests it’s easier for us to kickstart new habits at these natural breaks in our lives. Think of New Years. We’re like, it’s the new year. Or a birthday: I’m a new age. [A change in place is] another one of those breaks. You feel like you’re in a new spot, like, It’s after vacation time. And those little moments of defining yourself differently do seem to change our motivation. There’s some lovely work by the behavioral economist Katy Milkman and her colleagues. She’s a professor at the Wharton School and she’s shown that framing things as a fresh start can motivate people to start new habits.

>>Next: 7 Tips for Creating Happier Travel Memories

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More from AFAR