For the Birds Radio Program: Investing in Vacations

Original Air Date: Feb. 24, 2010 Rerun Dates: March 3, 2016; Feb. 24, 2011

When the New York Times wellness blog discussed a Dutch study that indicated that the biggest happiness associated with a vacation comes from the planning and that happiness from the vacation didn’t last long after the trip, it didn’t ring true–at least not for birding vacations.

Duration: 4′48″


Vacations Last week, the New York Time’s wellness blog had an entry about a Dutch study testing the effect that vacations have on a person’s overall happiness and how long that happiness lasts. The researchers found that the largest boost in vacation-related happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation. But after the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to baseline levels for most people. How much stress or relaxation a traveler experienced on the trip appeared to influence post-vacation happiness. There was no post-trip happiness benefit for travelers who said the vacation was neutral or stressful. Those who described the trip as relaxing showed no additional jump in happiness after the trip. The only people who were happier than normal after the vacation were those who found the vacation very relaxing, and for them, the vacation happiness effect lasted for just two weeks. The study didn’t find any relationship between the length of the vacation and overall happiness. Since most of the happiness boost comes from planning and anticipating a vacation, the study suggests that people may get more out of several small trips a year than one big vacation. I wonder if any of the study’s subjects were birders. It’s true that much of the pleasure in a birding trip comes from anticipating the places and birds we’ll see—reading through the field guide to a new place to see all the possibilities gives me an anticipatory thrill even when my life is fraught with tension and stress. Of course, this wouldn’t be true for a birder who felt a sense of urgency to know every bird before the trip, or who was panicking that this was his one shot at going to a particular place and he needed to plan the perfect itinerary to maximize the value. Some birders are so goal-oriented that even during the trip they’re fraught, second-guessing themselves about every detail that didn’t go according to plan and anxious about every coming event. If you absolutely need to see a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, you’re not going to be satisfied watching yet another Keel-billed Toucan or Passerini’s Tanager. I’ve seen birders walk away after a momentary glimpse at a Resplendent Quetzal, ready to move on to the next lifer. Those of us who get lost in the birds we’re seeing—happy about every glimpse and opportunity—can find pleasure in each moment of a trip. I spent almost a full month in Costa Rica the first time I went, and I don’t think I stopped smiling from the moment I got off the plane in San Jose, hearing tink frogs that sounded like magical hammers tapping on diamonds, until I fell asleep on the plane on the way home again. Even when I got sick two weeks into the trip and had to stay in my hotel room for a couple of days, the hummingbirds coming to my window filled me with joy. When we come home from a trip, we have to get back into regular life immediately, and the afterglow can quickly fade. But it takes me days or weeks to enter all the birds I saw into my bird list software—and as I enter each bird, memories come flooding back, and I experience happiness all over again. Months, years, and even decades after a trip, I can look on my lifelist and remember where I saw almost every bird, getting yet more waves of happiness from past trips. In 1998, an investments accountant talked me into investing my retirement savings in his firm. The stock market immediately fell, and my investment has yet to reach the value I started out with. Not only that—that money has given me zero pleasure in all those 12 years. Meanwhile, the money I’ve spent on trips has given me experiences that enrich my life and give me endless pleasure—a wise investment indeed.