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5 Psychological Studies to Reboot Your Summer

How is it already August? June and July flew by in about ten minutes, leaving us to wonder where all our grand plans for the Best Summer Ever went. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen and Quick and Dirty Tips intern Emily Jones team up to offer five ways to help you get the most out of the final four weeks of summer (or rest assured that it’s okay if you don’t).

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 12, 2016
Episode #121

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It’s August. With fall around the corner, you may feel pressured to make the most of the next four weeks. Here are five ways to ensure your answer to, “What have you been up to this summer?” won’t be lame or involve heavy doses of fictionalized enhancements.

Tip #1:  Put your money towards experiences, not things. A recent study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that spending money on experiences like a day trip or a concert tickets, rather than stuff like clothing or jewelry, made participants happier.  But why?

Three reasons: in the simplest explanation, experiences stayed with people—participants simply thought about the experiences more often than they thought about possessions and such reminiscing was pleasurable in and of itself.

Second, the researchers noted that experiences were more open to “positive reinterpretation” than objects. Okay, what does that mean? Have you ever come back from a vacation that had its admittedly stressful moments and still said, “What a great time!” Essentially, with experiences, we filter: our memory of highlights get retained or even embellished, while the negative bits are diminished or even plain forgotten. But objects? Objects are pretty much constant and it’s hard to embellish something unchangeable.

In a final explanation, experiences have a greater social value than possessions, meaning that shared experiences allow people to connect with each other more than shared possessions do. If you have the same watch as someone else, who cares? But if you discover you both frequent the same beach, both went to the same music festival, or both tried spearfishing this summer, now you have something to talk about.

To sum up, sometimes you have to buy stuff, whether to outfit that camping trip or pick up a book for the beach, but sometimes you don’t.  So in the upcoming weeks, think about whether you’re buying an experience or a thing. Go ahead and invest in concert tickets—but maybe hold back on the souvenir t-shirt.

Tip #2: Take pictures. Whether you’re using a top-of-the line professional camera, your cell phone, or a disposable, another Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study just out this year found that participants who took pictures during an experience enjoyed it more than participants who did not.

As someone who always forgets to take pictures, I was curious about this one. The researchers speculated that taking pictures increases engagement with an experience, and this engagement increases enjoyment.

In one of the experiments, participants were fitted with eye-tracking glasses that captured what they looked at and for how long, which sounds equally awesome and creepy. Regardless, once participants were set up, they were asked to visit an archeology museum and were randomly assigned either to take photos or to simply look around.

The participants who took photos studied museum artifacts longer than participants who were just observing, leading the researchers to conclude that actively analyzing an experience and deciding which moments to capture immerses a person more deeply into the experience. The one caveat? Make sure that all the picture-taking doesn’t prevent the photographer from actually participating in the activity.

Thankfully, there’s hope for me and others who realize we’ve forgotten to record the moment: another experiment in the same study found that taking an actual picture isn’t necessary to achieve this effect—simply taking mental pictures still led to heightened enjoyment.

Tip #3: Plan shorter, more frequent vacations, farther in advance. We’ve talked about this study on the podcast before, but it bears repeating.  Oddly, the enjoyment of a vacation may be largely in its anticipation. A 2010 study measured the pre-trip and post-trip happiness of vacationers compared to those who stayed at home for the same stretch. Counterintuitively, they found no significant difference in post-trip happiness compared to simply staying home. However, vacationers’ pre-trip happiness was higher, likely reflecting their excitement for the getaway.

Also surprising was that the length of the vacation didn’t seem to matter. No matter how long the trips were, from less than 5 days to more than three weeks, happiness went back to pre-trip levels upon their return.

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