If You Want to Be Happy, Treat Your Weekends Like a Vacation

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Sigh. I’ve said this many times during the course of the Psyched series, but the important thing about science is that it doesn’t always tell you what you want to hear. Sometimes, yes, it confirms the obvious — or the things you want to be true. But other times, it smacks you in the face with something you really don’t want to hear.

That’s why science is valuable. And a big part of why the scientific method became a mainstay of modern society. As a society, it’s more important that we hear what’s actually going on rather than what we want to hear.

(Or something close to what’s actually going on — scientists are human beings, too, and there are a few aspects re: how academia and publication work that biases certain kinds of results — but that’s beyond the scope of this essay, and speaking big picture, science is really important, valuable, and way better than our gut guesses.)

As with some other studies I’ve covered, today’s study tells me I’m doing my life wrong. Well, wrong-ish.

Okay, I’ll explain.

If You Want to Be Happy, Treat Your Weekends Like a Vacation

Pretty simple premise to the first study in today’s research paper: They split people into two groups. One group was told to treat the weekend like a vacation. The other group was told to have themselves a regular weekend.

After the weekend was over, the group that had been primed to think of the weekend as a vacation was less unhappy and had greater satisfaction on Monday when they returned to work. They also reported that they were able to be more focused on the present than the other group.

They then did a followup second study in which they did the same thing but asked the two groups to write a report of what they did during those weekends. The vacation group did less housework and more recreational activities. Like the first study, they reported they were able to focus more on the present.

One neat thing that the researchers found was that the differences in their activities didn’t account for the happiness difference after the weekend. But the groups’ reported focus on the present did.

The researchers say that this finding is consistent with other studies that have been done on mindfulness. Interestingly, the framing of “like a vacation” seems to be a reliable way to get people to treat their free time more mindfully — without any explicit guidance on mindfulness.

I Am a Big Advocate for Mindfulness But Tend to Feel Guilty If I’m Not Productive on Weekends

Why this study made me a little surly: I am a huge advocate for mindfulness and practice it a lot in my everyday life.

But I realized reading this study I do a better job with maintaining mindfulness during my work week. And kind of neglect it over the weekends. As I wrote in another recent essay, it is very rare for me to go an entire weekend without working in some way, shape, or form. I feel guilty unless I’m being productive.

My partner is similar.

So it was a minor miracle when we were able to spend a long holiday weekend doing the bare minimum.

And this research is making me question that choice a bit.

Not sure where I’ll go with this. How it’ll play out in my everyday life. If and what I’d change, looking for — perhaps — some kind of happier middleground between where I’ve been and committing to vacation weekend every week (although I suppose that’s a possibility). But it’s definitely food for thought.

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Before anyone asks, if your work weekend isn’t the weekend on the calendar (I spent about 12 years myself with a Wed/Thurs “weekend” or a Fri/Sat “weekend”), it’s still a weekend for the purposes of this research. They just mean your regular days off.

(Hopefully you have a regular day off every week, ideally two. I did have a job once where I worked 25 days in a row, cleaning hotel rooms. And some people work multiple gigs, which I know also can lead to no days off, since I did that, too.)

Whatever time off you have (and I hope you have a little), that’s what they’re talking about.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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