Getaways

Do well-needed vacations actually bum us out?

May 9, 2013 at 12:25 PM ET

Post-vacation blues
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Vacations are supposed to revitalize us, but some travelers report feeling blue when arriving home after a trip.

Spend a little time in an airport and you’ll quickly be able to tell the travelers setting out on a trip from those returning: Departing globe-trotters are the ones nearly dancing with anticipation, while those just back do a zombie shuffle on the way to airport parking.

Coming home is hard. “It's such a shock to the system,” said Doug Mack, who spent six weeks in Europe, an experience he chronicled in his book “Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.”

“I remember feeling really mopey and trying to hide it because people were jealous and I understand I was very privileged (to have traveled).”

Every year, Americans are told of the virtues of taking time off and unplugging from technology and daily responsibilities. And, increasingly, many of us leave vacation days on the table, unable to get away from our busy, multi-tasking existences.

A global online survey, "Vacation Deprivation," conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of travel site Expedia from September to October last year, showed Americans took two fewer vacation days compared with 2011, and had fewer vacation days to take (12 down from 14).

But feeling blue after a trip? That runs counter to the whole idea that vacations make us happy.

Some suggest it’s all in our heads.

‘Vacation hangover’
“It is not a legitimate mental health issue,” said Jeroen Nawijn of the Centre for Sustainable Tourism and Transport. “In my own study that dealt with post-trip effects, I found no proof of post-travel depression.”

Dr. Sebastian Filep, lecturer at the University of Otago's Department of Tourism and co-author of "Vacation Rules," agrees. “The idea of post-travel depression is largely a myth,” he said.

But can the legions lamenting their post-trip funk be imagining things?

Not Barbara Adam. The Australian went on a cycling trip with her dad through Vietnam and Cambodia in 2007. “It was an amazing trip and I when it finished I came down with a terrible case of post-holiday blues,” she said. “Everything at home seemed so pointless, trivial and mundane. I was totally miserable, even though from the outside my life seemed great.”

It's a feeling many travelers have felt at some point, and could be related to letting go of stress.

It’s called “contrast effect,” said Dr. Gerhard Strauss-Blasche from the University of Vienna’s Department of Physiology. “Vacationers cease to be used to stress and thus react more strongly when confronted (with it) again.”

Chris Danforth calls it "vacation hangover." Danforth is an associate professor at the University of Vermont who studied tweets and found that "expressed happiness increases logarithmically with distance from an individual's average location."

New perspective
The idea that dejection is really the shock from readjustment to pre-trip happiness levels could certainly be one aspect. Another is the audience when you get home.

“Part of the letdown was that it was great to share experiences but it was also frustrating because people have these expectations that when you're abroad you're having all these magnificent experiences,” said Mack. ''And (your experiences) don't always match their daydreams.”

In some cases, vacation offers the perspective you need to make a change.

New York City-based travel writer David Farley says he doesn't get down after a trip. “I'm glad to come back. I love where I live.” he said. “I don't know if it has to do as much with travel as your ordinary life isn't as satisfying as it could be.”

That was the case for Adam. “My life is so much better now because of my post-holiday blues,” she said.

The feeling motivated her to shake up her life. She moved to Vietnam where she fell in love, had a baby, and now runs Saigon Street Eats.

“I am learning every day, exploring a new language and a new culture. And six years later I still don't feel any need to go back to my old life.”

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