So have you taken a minute to recall how you felt at work on a recent Monday. If not, do it now.
Were you happy and satisfied? Or stressed and worried?
Your answer may reveal a lot about the way you approached the prior weekend. According to research in progress, making one small mindset change — treating your weekend like a vacation — can increase your happiness.
And unlike taking a more traditional vacation, this emotional boost doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming.
Ongoing research by Cassie and her colleagues are finding that individuals who prioritize vacation are significantly happier: They exhibit more positive emotion, less negative emotion, and are more satisfied in life.
They were motivated by the fact that More than 50% of Americans leave their paid vacation days unused each year.
And like much of the developed world, the majority of Americans get (and take) two days off from work every week: the weekend.
So the team at UCLA wanted to see if there’s a way to help people leverage the time people already take off from work to enjoy the potential happiness they would get from a vacation.
To do this, they ran an experiment among more than 400 working Americans over the span of a regular weekend in May 2017.
The intervention was simple: On the Friday leading into the weekend, we randomly instructed half of the participants to treat the weekend like a vacation. The other half, serving as a control condition, were instructed to treat the weekend like a regular weekend. That was it. How they interpreted the instructions was entirely up to them. Everyone was left to do whatever they wanted during those next two days.
When participants were back at work on Monday, they followed up with a survey measuring their current happiness (that is, their positive emotion, negative emotion, and satisfaction).
The results showed that those who had treated their weekend like a vacation were significantly happier than those who had treated it as a regular weekend.
This effect held when we controlled for the amount of money they reported to have spent. Thus, without taking any extra time off from work and without needing to spend any additional money, the simple nudge to treat their time off as a vacation increased their happiness when they were back at work on Monday.
These results seemed too good to be true, so they ran the study again with more than 500 different people on another regular weekend in January 2018.
This time, they measured how happy people were during the weekend, how they spent their time, and the extent to which they were mentally present.
The experimental treatment was exactly the same: At random, half were instructed to treat their weekend like a vacation, and the other half were instructed to treat it like a regular weekend.
Yet again, the vacationers were statistically happier at work on Monday. They were happier throughout the weekend as well.
How did treating the weekend as a vacation boost happiness? Yes, the “vacationers” behaved somewhat differently: doing less housework and work for their jobs, staying in bed a little longer with their partner, and eating a bit more. These differences in activities, however, weren’t responsible for their increased happiness. Instead …
Treating the time like a vacation seems to have shifted people’s mindset.
Specifically, the vacationers were more mindful of and attentive to the present moment throughout their weekend’s activities.
For example, two women — one in the control group and one instructed to treat her weekend like a vacation — reported making breakfast on Saturday morning.
The first woman reported doing so with enjoyment: “Made biscuits and gravy for breakfast. It’s my favorite!” The second woman took her enjoyment one step further: “I woke everyone up with pancakes this morning. It’s something I like to do when we are on vacation. I found myself enjoying the morning more than usual, maybe it’s because I focused on staying in the moment.”
The difference between the women’s experience is subtle, but crucial. Even though their activities and behaviors were largely the same, it was the second woman’s attention to the present moment — her mindset — that produced the subsequent effect on happiness during the rest of the weekend and the following Monday.
Why does this mindset shift have such a powerful effect?
Research shows that slowing down and paying more attention to your surroundings, the activity at hand, and the people who are involved allows you to enjoy the activity more. Without ruminating on the past or getting distracted by anxieties or fantasies about the future …
Increasing your attention to the present moment makes you more sensitive to the pleasures that are already in the environment.
It helps you savor experiences and life a bit more.
Even if you can’t take the entire weekend “off” because of a looming work deadline or household obligations, it is still possible to gain the benefits of a vacation mindset.
You can carve out a piece of the weekend (or perhaps even the workweek) to fully enjoy and be in the present, as you would on vacation. Or you can apply a vacation mindset to whatever task is at hand.
Slow down, notice, and make it more fun; turn on some upbeat music in the car while running errands, or make yourself a margarita for folding laundry.
One word of caution: Given that the vacation mindset and resulting happiness stems from mentally breaking from routine and the day-to-day grind, this intervention cannot itself become a routine.
Treating every single weekend or evening off from work like a vacation might cause a reduction in its cognitive and emotional impact. We recommend saving the mental vacations for when you really need the break.
When used judiciously, however, this simple reframing allows you to enjoy some of the happiness from a vacation without taking additional time off.
The experiments suggest that your mindset is more important than the activities you take part in, or the amount of money you spend, when you’re not at work.
So between weekend chores, soccer practices, and birthday parties, try to notice and appreciate the time you do have.
Treating this time like a vacation can provide a needed break from the typical grind, allowing you to appropriately savour moments spent at the soccer field or gathered around the dinner table with family and friends. And when you do head back to work, you’re more likely to feel refreshed and ready to tackle your week.
Edited from an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review’s The Big Idea.