Do you want your kids to be happy and smart?
Do you think you can achieve both goals by giving them educational toys? A lot of toys? They ask for them, so why not answer their wishes?
Remember that quote: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it”? This quote easily applies to kids who ask constantly for new toys, new games, new things… when in fact, deep down inside, they want something else. We all know it: they want to spend time with their parents. Plain and simple.
That brings me to the first scientific proof why family vacations make our kids happier and smarter.
Buying experiences make us happier than buying things
According to Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich, “when it comes to spending disposable income, experiential purchases tend to make people happier than material purchases. But why are experiences more satisfying? (…) Our results suggest that experiential purchase decisions are (…) more conducive to well-being.”
What does it mean?
It means that if you have to choose between buying a product, a toy, for example, or buying an experience, like a day at the beach, it is the experience that will make you happier.
Is it the same with gifts? Because when we receive a gift, we are not spending money. Someone else is.2 Cindy Chan, from the University of Toronto, answers this question with science: “Interpersonal relationships are essential to well-being, and gifts are often given to cultivate these relationships. (…) Experiments examining actual gift exchanges in real-life relationships reveal that experiential gifts produce greater improvements in relationship strength than material gifts.”
So a relationship becomes more intense, deeper, stronger when the parents (the givers) and the kids (the receivers) share an experience together.
Is it true? Because when I am getting a new toy for my little girl, or I buy something I want for myself, we really feel joyful!
And if the scientific proofs mentioned above are true, what kind of experience would be the best gift to give to ourselves and to our kids?
Are family vacations the best present to give to our kids?
3 Psychology professor Thomas Gilovich answers this question: we feel the same increase in happiness when we buy something we want and when we go on a family vacation. But — and here’s the point:
the amount of happiness we get from our new toy or purchase falls over time, whereas the memories of our traveling experience continue to fill us with happiness hormones for much longer.
4 Also, according to Oliver James, who is Britain’s leading child psychologist and best-selling psychological author, parents shouldn’t spend their paycheck on toys. Parents should spend their money on family vacations instead. Why?
Family vacations are definitely valued by children, both in the moment and for long afterward in their memory. So if you’re going to spend money on something, it’s pretty clear which option makes more sense.
Yes, kids are no different than adults, and regard experiences like travel as far more fulfilling than getting their hands on a brand new toy. The only difference is that they value different aspects of that travel experience.
We can conclude with these 4 scientific proofs that family vacations really make us happier.
But are there other benefits to family vacations, especially for kids?
Family vacations deepens and strengthens bonds
5 Yes! Dr. Margot Sunderland, a child psychotherapist, has put a name on the most precious gift we offer our kids on family vacations, a present our kids may not ask explicitly for, but secretly yearn for:
the prized gift of time.
On family vacations, parents aren’t focused on work and chores, but on play. “Dad or Mum, building sandcastles, playing badminton on the beach, jumping over waves. It seems like fun, but it’s also “attachment play”, and it’s vital for bonding. Attachment play also enhances self-esteem, sending a child the psychological message: “You have my full attention. I delight in you. I delight in being with you.”
In other words, family vacations build deeper and stronger bonds between parents and their kids.
What else? Is it true family vacations can make our kids smarter?
Family vacations make our kids smarter
Dr. Sunderland continues her analysis of family vacations, and she concludes this:
“What is less widely known is that
vacations can also advance brain development in children.
This is because on a family holiday you are exercising two genetically ingrained systems deep in the brain’s limbic area, which can all too easily be “unexercised” in the home. These are the PLAY system and the SEEKING system.”
She explains that “the brain’s PLAY system is exercised every time you bury your child’s feet in the sand, tickle them on the pool lounger, or take them for a ride on your back. The brain’s SEEKING system is exercised each time you go exploring together: the forest, the beach, a hidden gem of a village.”
6 These brain systems were discovered by Professor Jaak Panksepp, a world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University. When are these brain systems activated at the same time? Usually on family vacations.
How does it work? Once your family vacations adventures and experiences activate these two systems in your own brain, and in your kids’ brains, “they trigger well-being neurochemicals including opioids, oxytocin, and dopamine.” Panksepp calls them “nature’s gift to us”. “They reduce stress and activate warm, generous feelings towards each other and a lovely sense that all is well in the world. With all the anti-stress aspects of these systems firing,
family members get to emotionally refuel.
The most amazing thing is that these systems are like muscles: the more you use them, the more they become part of your personality.
7 Or, as the neuroscientist Bruce Perry puts it: “Emotional states become personality traits”.
And that kind of personality traits will translate into the ability to play with ideas, essential, for example, to a successful entrepreneur.
Dr Sunderland adds that “really using the brain’s PLAY and SEEKING systems well, as often happens on family [vacations], brings about brain growth and maturation in the frontal lobes, the very part of the brain involved in cognitive functioning, social intelligence and well-focused, goal-directed behaviours that may last a lifetime.”
Moreover, since most family vacation activities happen to take place outside, the kids’ concentration skills are strengthened.
Research has revealed improvements in a child’s concentration levels and attention after being in nature for only 20 minutes. As explained by Dr. Sunderland:
Green-play settings were found to be as good as, or better than, medication for children with ADHD.
Is there a relationship between family vacations and IQ?
As Dr. Sunderland says, “enriched environments turn on the genetic expression of key “brain fertilizers” in the frontal lobes, enhancing executive functions such as stress regulation, attention, concentration, good planning and ability to learn, also improving physical and mental health. The brain fertilizers triggered in enriched environments are also associated with higher IQ in children.“
What are “enriched environments”? An enriched environment offers new social, physical, sensory interaction and learning experiences for kids, and adults too. Think: family together walking in a tropical forest, playing together in the pool or running in the waves.
Thus, spending time exploring together a new destination — an enriched environment — will make your kids’ IQ higher.
Now let’s take this up a notch.
Raising our kids to become successful world-class citizens through family vacations
8 According to a Harvard study, raising our kids to become better and successful human beings and future world-class citizens is a hard but a possible process that sums up to this:
“When children can empathize with and take responsibility for others, they’re likely to be happier and more successful. They’ll have better relationships their entire lives, and strong relationships are a key ingredient of happiness. In today’s workplace, success often depends on collaborating effectively with others, and children who are empathic and socially aware are also better collaborators.”
How does this science relate to travel and family vacations?
First, to raise caring, respectful, and ethical children, parents have to work to develop caring, loving relationships with their kids. By spending quality time together as a family and having meaningful conversations, like on a family vacation, parents take a genuine interest in their kids’ lives.
Then the kids feel loved and become even more attached to their parents, and that attachment makes them more receptive to their parents’ values and teaching.
As we saw above with Dr. Sunderland’s studies, family vacations are one of the best opportunity to give the prized gift of quality time to our precious kids.
Second, parents should provide opportunities for their kids to practice caring and gratitude, which can be achieved by involving them in making family vacation plans.
It will help them improve their perspective and solving skills.
And there’s nothing easier for kids to be grateful and thankful for when they feel considered and when they spent a lot of fun and quality time with their parents.
Finally, expanding our kids’ circle of concern is a sure way of teaching them to have empathy.
Especially in our more global world, it’s important for kids to develop concern for people who live in other cultures and communities around the world.
And of course, traveling around the world and going on family vacations stimulate our kids’ curiosity and creativity, help develop his self-esteem and help him adapt more easily.
But you might ask: in what enriched environment will my kids enjoy, learn and thrive the best?
What kind of family vacations is best for kids?
Yes, not all family vacations are created equal. Here are the 5 keys to successful and happy family vacations.
The best attitude for happy family vacations
According to Oliver James, “the first and simplest mistake that an awful lot of parents make is confusing what they find exciting about a holiday with what their children will. So many of the ‘interesting’ things about a new place are deathly boring to the vast majority of children — high culture, for example, in almost all forms. So your child, if at all typical, will grumble at the ghastly business of being dragged round.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t visit any museum at all, but imposing high-culture on family vacations may backfire.
“Give a two-year-old a present and she’ll get absorbed in the box instead,” says James. “It’s similar with children and travel. We should let them explore their own ways of finding wonder in their surroundings.”
It means that kids see the world differently and that some details you won’t even notice will on the other hand stick with them long after the family vacation ends.
We have to let our kids explore our family vacation destinations in their own unique ways.
What our kids value, what they will remember long after the family vacations, is the family moments spent together: talking nonsense, singing a song, sharing an ice cream, burying daddy in the sand.
Family vacations preparation
Preparation is also very important to make family vacations a stunning success. Vacation anticipation, for example, is key to happy family vacations.
9 Dutch researchers who surveyed a large sample of vacationers vs non-vacationers noted marked differences in pre-trip happiness; differences in post-trip levels of happiness were smaller.
How to increase pre-trip happiness? By building anticipation: counting the days before departure, booking several short vacations instead of going on one long family vacation and reading about our destinations are the best ways to increase pre-trip happiness.
Moreover, the Harvard study mentioned above concluded that involving children in organizing family vacations teaches solving skills and gives them an authentic responsibility: becoming co-creators of a happy family. So getting your kids involved in the preparation of your family vacations will make them smarter and happier.
The best destinations for family vacations
Another way we can make the most of our family vacations is to spend most of our travel days outside.
10 A large study that used GPS data from more than 20,000 British people confirmed something that we all suspected: we are happier when outdoors, because of the natural sunlight that increases our levels of vitamin D. Also, exposure to green landscapes has been associated with psychological health and lower levels of depression.
There is also evidence that a walk together in green space calms the body, lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels and even cholesterol — so everyone can benefit from it.
The best activities for family vacations
11 Looking for another way to boost your family’s mood? Physiologists from the University of Vermont have found that a mere 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can lift your spirit for up to 12 hours afterward. And you don’t need to run fast to reap the benefits: walking, physically playing or simply chasing your kids around will do the trick.
How to create the best memories of family vacations
Want to enhance your family’s positive feelings towards your vacation for a long period of time, even after the trip is over?
12 Recent research from the University of Southern California found that people who took pictures of their pleasant experiences reported were happier. Taking pictures seem to help us engage with experiences more deeply, in a way similar to mindfulness.
And you get the chance to live those enjoyable moments long afterward when looking at the pictures over and over again.
What can we conclude of all these 12 scientific proofs?
Family vacations make everyone in the family, including kids, happier and smarter. They also deepen and strengthen family bonds.
What do you think? Do you agree with these 12 scientific proofs? Please feel free to comment below and give us your opinion!
For more scientific proofs, you can find here 25 science-backed health benefits of traveling.
Here’s an infographic that will help you remember all the important aspects you need to consider if you want to achieve the happiest family vacations. Happy pinning!
OLIVER JAMES, UK’s leading child Psychologist, and Britain’s best-selling psychological author
Dr. Margot Sunderland, a child psychotherapist, is Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health.
Making Caring Common Project, Harvard, Raising Caring Children
Professor Jaak Panksepp, world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University
BRUCE PERRY, Neuroscientist
Cindy Chan, Cassie Mogilner; Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Social Relationships Than Material Gifts. J Consum Res 2017; 43 (6): 913-931. doi: 10.1093/jcr/ucw067
The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Carter, Travis J.; Gilovich, Thomas
Thomas Gilovich, Psychology professor at Cornell University
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 98(1), Jan 2010, 146-159.
George Mackerron and Susana Mourato, Happiness is greater in natural environments
How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences, Kristin Diehl University of Southern California, Gal Zauberman Yale University, Alixandra Barasch University of Pennsylvania