Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, or up a ski slope, or off to any other holiday spot this December, along comes Omicron.
Before news of the coronavirus variant emerged, I had been practising my year-end ritual of checking to see where I might be able to get to for a vacation.
Excitingly, it had looked as if it was finally safe to book a trip to see family in Australia without having to spend most of the holiday in quarantine. Even the cost of a flight had fallen from the stratospheric to the merely staggering.
“Wow,” I reported to my other half after a prolonged session of travel site scouring one night. “You can get from London to Sydney and back for less than £2,000.”
Five months ago, fares were being advertised for up to 10 times that price, one way.
Buoyed by similarly cheering travel news, many of my friends were also making getaway plans. Some were desperate to see far-flung relatives. Others just wanted to escape a grey London winter.
All this might still happen. Or it might not. At the time of typing, the world is still in Omicron limbo, waiting for scientists to say if the variant is likely to cast us back to the remorseless uncertainty of 2020, or not.
Either way, the idea of a holiday has become vastly more complicated. The good news is, this is not as disastrous as it might seem.
But you do not need to go on a long holiday, or a foreign one, to enjoy the boost of a break.
The effect of a short vacation is just as strong as that of a longer one, some studies have shown, and getting away for less than five days is still a powerful way to improve health and happiness. Also, you do not need to go far.
“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that domestic vacations are no less enjoyable than international vacations,” says Dr Ondrej Mitas, a senior lecturer at the Breda University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands who studies the psychology of leisure experiences.
“And vacations by car or rail are no less enjoyable than vacations by air.”
It is also calming to consider the reasons we enjoy holidays so much.
Oddly, a lot of the joy comes before we even pack a toothbrush.
The pleasure of anticipating a break is significant and studies suggest it starts weeks or even months before a holiday begins.
One theory says this happens because our hunter-gatherer past has left us with an innate desire to roam that is still partly satisfied by the prospect of a week in Tenerife.
This idea could also explain why the post-break euphoria fades so fast, since we have had our fill of wandering and don’t have another break to look forward to.
Mitas puts it slightly differently. We are “soft and slow creatures”, he says, and hard-wired to survive by outsmarting our environment.
That means we suck our surroundings for information, like vacuum cleaners. The impulse that makes us constantly check our phones for new messages is linked to the pleasure we get from travelling somewhere new and different. In other words, one reason we like holidays is because we are programmed to enjoy novelty.
So what is Mitas’s advice for those whose overseas holiday plans have been disrupted by Omicron?
First, accept the blow of missing out on the sense of pre-trip anticipation. But second, if circumstances still allow, do not give up entirely. “Please go on vacation!” he says. Get out of the house. Do something different, even if just for a few days.
Finally, it is worth remembering that, as wonderful as holidays are, we have a tendency to exaggerate their brilliance. Once back in harness at work, the post-break afterglow fades faster than we think. It has generally vanished within a week and lasts at most for two weeks, even after a very relaxing holiday, say researchers.
So if Omicron ends up completely wrecking your holiday plans, there is still the — admittedly small — consolation that the vacation was never going to leave you feeling better for quite as long as you thought.
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