You may be experiencing the post-holiday blues. But what if I told you that this experience of heightened negativity is really good for you? What if I told you it’s actually a sign of healthy psychological functioning?
The post-holiday blues typically reflect the emotional cost of having just enjoyed a few weeks of fun. Despite the well-intentioned adage, the best things in life aren’t actually free. They typically involve financial, physical, and emotional compromise.
The whole concept of the post-holiday blues involves two inherent assumptions:
- That your holiday was enjoyable, and
- That you would rather be on your holiday than at work.
For the sake of this article, let’s play along and say these assumptions hold true.
First, though, let’s acknowledge that not everybody experiences a heightened level of pleasure or relaxation while on holidays.
For many, holidays involve frustration over delayed flights, disappointment at hotel rooms that don’t match the pictures you saw online, jetlag, and indecision or uncertainty about where to eat or what to do.
Studies attest to the less-than-pleasant experiences reported by vacationers, including homesickness, health problems, and relationship stress, typically attributed to spending too much time with your partner.
Your brain is playing tricks on you
Even if your holiday involved a painful episode of Bali belly, your brain corrupts the memories of holidays past, and tricks us into disproportionately remembering the parts of the holiday we enjoyed.
It’s just one of a series of illusions our brain fools us into believing, in the same way we think bad things are more likely to happen to others than they are to us. Somewhat ironically, the capacity to fool ourselves every single day is an indication of good mental health and psychological functioning.
We should also note that some people actually do enjoy going back to work. For many, it offers routine, predictability, and familiarity, which contribute to a sense of control over our world. Even though we crave change, our brain actually prefers consistency, and attempts to restore stability whenever our ordinary routine is threatened.
So whether or not we did enjoy our holiday, and whether or not we’d rather be on holiday than back at work, our brain is wired to make us believe that we did, or we would. In doing so, we pay the emotional cost for a well-enjoyed break, and we experience a comedown toward our baseline level of wellbeing.
The comedown is characterised by a downward emotional slide, which is our mind’s attempt to restore our ordinary, and optimal level of functioning. Think of how we swerve to overcompensate if we veer too far over in a car; the comedown is the psychological version of finding the right emotional balance.
The phenomenon is not unique to holidays. Another example is the post-wedding blues. This term describes the feeling of deflation often reported by brides and grooms following an event that they had spent months, even years, looking forward to. The wedding day itself evokes positive emotions, but a bride or groom commonly anticipates the event with increased positive emotion for months before any wedding bells start ringing.
Once the event is over, though, the stimulus that was the source of the positive emotions is removed, and the fond memories and new homeware gifts are little compensation for the credit card bill and extra pressure and responsibilities that face a newly-married couple.
In 2014, evidence for this post-wedding ‘hangover’ was detected by the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. The study focused on the subjective wellbeing scores of married couples, and found that the lowest levels of life satisfaction were reported by those in their first year of marriage.
Another example is the phenomenon of post-Olympic or post-Paralympic depression. Researchers have described this feeling as an “emptiness vacuum”, or the void that athletes feel following the completion or achievement of a set goal.
My colleague, Dr Tom Hammond, clinical psychologist at the Australian Institute of Sport, proposed that the term “post-Olympic normalisation” is more apt.
What goes up …
The terms post-holiday ‘blues’, or post-holiday ‘depression’ are so dramatic. What we experience is a post-holiday normalisation.
It’s an adjustment following a changing life circumstance. There are countless articles around that will offer you tips to try to stem the tide of negativity, and of course we don’t want to keep sliding down into an actual depression, but many of these strategies will ultimately prove futile as they’re attempts to resist what is a normal, natural, and inevitable process.
The best we can do, perhaps, is hope to slow down the process, which is why we spend time looking at the photos of our trip or telling friends how wonderful the trip was. These activities evoke a pleasant sense of nostalgia, and temporarily bring back those positive emotions we crave.
I receive no sponsorship from travel companies (yet), but by far the best thing you can do is book your next holiday. Nothing alleviates the perceived misery of normalisation than the prospect of another holiday in the not-too-distant future.
Even though I know it’s just another illusion, and that my next holiday will probably still leave me feeling exhausted, I’d still rather be a tired fool on the beach in Hawaii.
Now go on, get back to work. It’s not as bad as you think…
Dr Melissa Weinberg is a research consultant and psychologist, specialising in wellbeing and performance psychology. You can view her TEDx talk here