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Jun 12, 2024

Is There a Science to Vacationing? (Not If You’re a Lab Rat)

A Carnegie Mellonhead weighs in…

By Ed Goldman

We’re often told to “trust the science,” as though “science” is the ultimate arbiter of everything. Not so. Exhibit A: Your pet doesn’t have to be on the “science” diet to have a perfectly healthy, enjoyable life. Exhibit B: If science is purely factual, how can there be a genre called “science fiction” (maybe this is how they came up with movie title “True Lies”). 

Exhibit C: A very recent Wall Street Journal article called, “How to Have a Great Vacation: What Science Tells Us.” First, you should know that the author, Jeff Galak, teaches marketing—and no matter how you spin it, that doesn’t make him a scientist. I speak from experience. I’ve taught and done marketing. I am not currently wearing a white smock nor writing this in a “clean” room (the scientific term for a completely sterilized environment). Even if you’re heavily engaged in market research—which these days combines algorithms, metrics, demographics and psychology—you’re not exactly a scientist. You’re not even a true mathematician. You’re a strategist and manipulator.

Edgy Cartoon

But it’s a dry heat

As I read Galak’s relentlessly silly piece I couldn’t shake the notion that he must have a side-hustle as the founder of a non-think tank called Densa. (Motto: “Whom can say?”) 

“Over the past two decades,” writes Galak, “I have studied what makes people happy with what they consume and we can apply that knowledge—often in surprising ways—to make our travel experiences bring more joy and less misery.” 

I’d like to believe that upon reading this, Galak’s colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University (where the good professor professes) might have recoiled in indignation or envy. “This is what this guy’s been studying on the university’s dime for decades?” they might have declaimed. “While we’ve been researching and teaching courses in Computer Science, Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Chemical Engineering, he’s been studying what makes people happy?”

Galak’s article contains a list of advice categories under the less-than-illuminating subheads “Do less,” “Limit your choices” and “Do something uncomfortable.” I think that list could easily double as the agenda for his article. Under “Do less,” he advises, “Rather than have one beach day followed by one hiking day, mix those up within a single day: relax on the beach in the morning and hike in the afternoon. Even though you’re cutting your beach time short, the more variety you introduce, the less you experience that drop in enjoyment for any one experience.”

Looking for a Great Gift?

Uh-huh. But if you “relax” at the beach in the morning, chances are you want to soak up some rays. Not too many people get tans going before lunchtime. But if they do, it’s a pretty safe bet they won’t want to then spend the afternoon walking, especially not in more sun.

Under “Limit your choices,” Galak suggests you avoid “choice overload” by “finding the first acceptable option” and going with it. He says this makes you a “satisficer” as opposed to a “maximizer.” “Think of the satisficer as someone who reads a restaurant menu and orders the first dish that sounds tasty,” he says. In other contexts, this is also called settling for less, being lazy and having a dearth of imagination.

My fave, is his guidance to “Do something uncomfortable.” “If all we include on our vacations are positive experiences, then that is likely all we will have to compare against, making each comparison not all that positive itself.” He says you should “leave your phone at the hotel and just get a bit lost wandering in a city. You might feel some anxiety but then the thrill of exploration will be that much more enjoyable.”

Depending on the crime stats in an unfamiliar part of town, you may also find that experience wallet-uplifting or life-shortening. Either way, definitely uncomfortable. Scientifically speaking, of course.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).