Why do holidays make us happy?

3 August, 2022|Travel and well-being|
Why do holidays make us happy? The Travel Psychologist

Dr Nicola Cann, Educational Psychologist and Regular Contributor

On first glance this might feel like a question with obvious answers, but I’ve been reflecting on this lately after reading about a new concept in the ‘psychology of happiness’. Traditionally in psychology happiness has been viewed as being made up of hedonic and eudaimonic components. These roughly translate to happiness gained from pleasure and happiness from meaning respectively. These two categories have stood the test of time, but recently some researchers have suggested a third component, psychological richness (Oishi & Westgate, 2021). The idea of psychological richness as a component of happiness really resonates with me, and got me thinking about why I enjoy travelling so much, and why my idea of a good holiday is sometimes so different from others’. Having recently waved goodbye to my nearest and dearest in the UK to embark on an extended period of solo travel, I have found myself wondering why the challenges ahead excite me so much. So I invite you to think about your own travelling style, and consider what kinds of trips make you happiest.

Why did you enjoy your last holiday?

Think back to your last travel experience. What did you enjoy the most about it? Was it the anticipation of some guaranteed relaxation time? Or maybe the fulfillment of a personal goal, like completing a tough hiking challenge? Or perhaps the idea of adventure and exploring the unknown? The research on happiness suggests that travel can fulfill our happiness requirements in three key ways, which I’ll outline below.

“I had fun!”

This is classically what lots of people perceive as happiness, and what psychologists call ‘hedonic happiness’. The focus is on pleasure, comfort, and feeling good (Ryan & Deci, 2001). This doesn’t necessarily mean partying into the small hours with little regard for the consequences (although that counts too). In fact maximising your chances of enjoyment, and minimising your chances of disappointment can require some planning. In terms of travel, this could mean booking ahead for that clubbing holiday on a Greek island, or saving up for that all-inclusive cruise around the med, or even going trekking in the Himalayas on an organised tour.

What this looks like in practice will be different for all of us. For example, personally the idea of lazing around on a beach for a week having cocktails brought to me on my sun lounger is not that appealing (honestly!). But I do enjoy the familiarity of returning to my favourite destinations, or being taken on a walking tour where I know I’ll get a great sense of the place I’m visiting. These are all examples of pleasure seeking travel: prioritising enjoyment and planning ahead so that your fun is guaranteed.

“I made a difference!”

This reflects happiness derived from a sense of purpose, a feeling that your life has direction, and that your experiences have meaning. The ways we tend to achieve this psychologically are to create consistency and routine so that our experiences feel more meaningful, or to focus our energies on social relationships and activities that have a positive impact in the world. We might also achieve happiness through meaning by focusing on achieving goals and realising our potential.

Achieving happiness through meaning is related to all kinds of other positive outcomes, like having stronger personal relationships, better mental health, and a healthier lifestyle. Psychologists think this is because the search for meaningful happiness encourages people to be proactive in seeking out experiences that will provide meaning and fulfillment in the longer term. So even if you’re a hedonist you might want to incorporate some purposeful travel into your plans. Those people prioritising a sense of meaning are more likely to plan their travel around having socially important experiences, or achieving goals. In practice this might mean going on a yoga retreat, volunteering overseas, or climbing a mountain. These kinds of experiences usually require a certain amount of social connection, or setting and working towards goals.

“What a journey!”

This represents the new idea of psychological richness, where variety and novelty are key. Experiences that promote psychological richness are those that are mentally stimulating and often unplanned, but that don’t necessarily make you feel good in the moment. They can involve facing challenges that engage us mentally and arouse our curiosity. They can be pleasant, or meaningful, or both, or neither, and this is one reason that psychological richness is being seen as a separate component of happiness. People who experience a lot of psychological richness tend to be those who are high in curiosity, and are less interested in comfort and stability.

This represents my current situation really well. Travelling around with few plans beyond the next destination, meeting lots of new people and having new experiences every day. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I miss being in familiar places with people who know me well, but my life is certainly full of novelty and variety right now. Another example could be taking a trip to an unfamiliar destination and being open to new experiences once you get there, getting to know the people, or trying the local cuisine. The highs and lows can be more extreme when it comes to psychological richness but some people like the rollercoaster. As with the other two components of happiness, psychological richness is highly subjective and dependent on what the individual considers to be novel, interesting, or challenging.


So which of the three happiness types appeals to you most? How does your last holiday compare? Were you seeking pleasure, purpose, or richness? Or perhaps a combination of all three. In reality of course none of us fall into one category all of the time, and we all prioritise different kinds of happiness at different times and in different contexts. So even the most dedicated mountain climber might also be able to enjoy the occasional beach holiday.

My reading on the psychology of happiness has helped me to understand some of my own travel choices, and I wonder now whether I will choose travel options more intentionally, knowing more clearly what my priorities are.


Baah, N. G., Bondzi-Simpson, A., & Ayeh, J. K. (2019). How neophilia drives international tourists’ acceptance of local cuisine. Current Issues in Tourism23(18), 2302-2318.

Besser, L. L., & Oishi, S. (2020). The psychologically rich life. Philosophical Psychology33(8), 1053-1071.

Heintzelman, S. J., & King ,L. A. (2014). Life is Pretty Meaningful. American Psychologist.

Oishi, S., & Westgate, E. C. (2021). A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning. Psychological review.

Ryan RM, Deci EL. 2001. On happiness and human potentials: a review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 52:141–66

You can find out more about Dr Nicola, at her website  The Family Sleep Consultant 

If you liked this article check out What are the psychological benefits of travel?