Looking at Old Travel Pics Could Help Boost Happiness While Grounded by the Pandemic

pandemic happiness

Research suggests that looking at old photos, and possibly even planning a future trip, can boost happiness levels while we're grounded by the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images / Anna Stills

It’s the time of year when I’d normally be looking forward to a getaway down south. But with the pandemic grounding non-essential trips, those plans weren’t even a glimmer this winter. So, it was like salt in the wound to read that travel can make us happier.

A study published in January in the journal Tourism Analysis shows that people who regularly travelled for pleasure — not business — were seven per cent more satisfied with their life. (I’m betting we’d see an even higher correlation if the study were redone now — you know what they say about absence, after all.)

“While things like work, family life and friends play a bigger role in overall reports of well-being, the accumulation of travel experiences does appear to have a small yet noticeable effect on self-reported life satisfaction,” said study lead Chun-Chu (Bamboo) Chen, an assistant professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University.

“It really illustrates the importance of being able to get out of your routine and experience new things.”

So what can we do while staying put to help curb the spread of COVID-19?

Try a change of scenery. “It really helps,” Chen tells me, on the phone from Vancouver, Wash. “By leaving your home to go somewhere — even hiking — that really helps.”

For the study, a trip was defined as travelling 75 miles, or 120 kilometres, from home. But it didn’t have to be overnight, Chen notes. “We want to stay in the bubble, but you have a road trip 75 miles — even 40 miles away — that helps,” he says.

But what about when, under lockdown, curfew or stay-at-home orders, even that’s too far?

Time to get out the photo albums.

As Chen explains, previous research has shown that, like the trip itself, looking at vacation pictures or video can make people happier. So, too, can the anticipation of a trip. “Studies show that — expectation is key here — people will have more happy feelings before the vacation, maybe two or three weeks before. Because they know it’s coming,” Chen says.

Can planning a trip make us happier, too?

It hasn’t been studied, but Chen says it’s a logical assumption. What he does know for sure is that looking leads to buying. “If people actually pay more attention to travel-related information or if they talk about that more frequently, that will make them travel more. That’s what I found.”

For the study, Chen surveyed 500 adults aged 18 to 54 in his home country of Taiwan from November to December 2013. He found that people who took six trips or more — 32 per cent of respondents — also reported paying more attention to tourism information and discussing vacation plans more often. And the return on the time invested is pretty good.

As noted in the study paper, Chen’s previous research into vacation benefit showed that people usually feel happier, healthier and more relaxed after travel for pleasure.

“Because this will go away,” Chen says of the pandemic, “I really think planning for our next travel can be helpful. Even though you may not be able to book — I really like this idea of planning. That’d be my advice for anyone.”