It’s over. The air is cooling. School is the opposite of out. You can probably feel the holiday spirit leaving your body. But what if you could capitalise on your holiday momentum and apply some of your novelty-seeking break from routine to, well, your daily routine?
Holidays are good for humans. A 40-year study in Finland that tracked the lives of 1,200 businessmen at risk of heart disease found last week that those who took three or fewer weeks’ holiday a year were more than one-third more likely to die young. The good news for those on a budget is that, according to the lead researcher, Timo Strandberg, the benefits were the same “whether you were in a holiday resort or just at home”.
Before you despair that the summer holidays are over, consider that immediately after a holiday is the perfect time to make changes to your routine. The plasticity in your brain – its ability to change and adapt to experiences – will be freshly stimulated by a combination of novel experience and physical activity and ready for the idea of positive change. So, with that in mind, here are 18 ways to keep the holiday spirit alive.
1 Be a home tourist
When did you last appreciate the place where you live? The chances are you researched your holiday destination, so why not apply the same rigour to your home town? Put your postcode into TripAdvisor or any other travel site and see what is nearby. (I have just discovered a clown museum, a graffiti class and birdwatching walks on my doorstep.) “Going on a guided tour may allow us to see our immediate environment from a new angle,” says Gosia Goclowska, a lecturer at the University of Bath who has studied the link between novelty and creativity. “Novelty can be found by looking at one place very deeply. There is novelty on your doorstep. Whatever street you’re in, each sunset is never the same.”
2 Re-evaluate your routine
“Holidays put us in a different environment and that change to the environment is really helpful in changing our behaviours,” says Rachel McCloy, an associate professor of applied behavioural science at the University of Reading who specialises in judgment and decision-making. “When you come back from holiday, think about the things you didn’t do when you were away.” Of course, these will include laundry, going to work, cooking and possibly dropping off and collecting children from various places. But what else freed up your time? Be honest. Did you watch less TV? Use your phone less? “These activities carry an opportunity cost. They are potentially stopping you making space in your day-to-day life,” says McCloy, who saw her home with fresh eyes when she returned from a break and promptly bleached almost every surface. Re-evaluating your evenings could make time for holiday occupations, which means this a good time to …
3 Choose your autumn reading
If the idea of summer reading gets you excited – all those articles on the best beach reads – then apply the same approach to your autumn reading. Read reviews, browse bookshops, ask friends for recommendations. September is a busy month in publishing, with big releases and the Booker shortlist. Apply the same enthusiasm to compiling an autumn “book wardrobe” as you would to choosing your holiday books – and clear those “must reads” that are beginning to look like “will never reads” from the bedside table. If that feels like too much work, buy a magazine.
4 Take a detour on your commute
Emrah Düzel, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, is studying the health benefits of combining novel experiences with physical activity, particularly in relation to dementia and cognitive decline in old age. Combining physical activity with the exploration of novel environments or novel social interactions – even something as simple as walking around a new city – “stimulates a lot of plasticity in the brain”. Think of this as holiday plasticity, which gets lost when we return to work. But even small changes could help to keep that sensation active and let you capitalise on your “new neurons”. Try walking or cycling to work a different way, or leave home early and break your journey for a walk in a park.
“The best way to modify habits is to replace them with a new habit,” says Trevor Robbins, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. He has studied the impact of habit on obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction and describes himself as “completely neophiliac” where holidays are concerned; he has just returned from Nyhavn in Copenhagen. “The idea is that if you are in a familiar environment with all these cues that elicit habitual behaviours, instead of trying to perform the behaviour that normally goes with that stimulus, you do something a bit different.” So, now that you are back home, “suppose when you wake up in the morning that, instead of jumping into your dressing gown, you put your track shoes next to the bed. Maybe you will put them on and go for a spin around the block,” he says.
“When we’re on holiday, we slow down. We use all our senses. We focus on one thing.” Whether it is watching the sun go down or leaning over a balcony to observe the woman who runs the ice-cream parlour patrolling her front step, our attention operates with vigorous curiosity. “These are techniques to bring home with us,” says Miriam Akhtar, a positive psychologist and coach. “You have started doing these things on holiday; you just need to keep up the practice.” So, I could get up in the morning and savour my routine in a way that makes it feel less routine? “You could savour your shower,” Akhtar says. (She hasn’t seen my shower.) “You could notice the changing seasons on your way to work. Maybe appreciate a friendly encounter with someone on the tube or as you go through reception.” In short, it doesn’t matter what you savour: try to transport your newly revitalised savouring habit from vacation to daily life and you will preserve a bit of your holiday mindset.
7 Buy a carafe
No, seriously. The best €3 I ever spent went on a little glass carafe that says “quarto litro” at its neck, just like the ones in which the cheapest wine is served in my favourite holiday trattoria. Back home, it encourages restraint on the wine front, while adding ceremony. I am not alone in this. McCloy, from Reading university, says that swigging from an ale tankard makes her feel pleasantly nostalgic about festivals.
8 Schedule empty time
Ambling around, frittering away time over slow drinks and long-winded games of cards, watching the clouds move or the sun drop … sometimes it is the release from obligation – including the obligation to do something interesting – that makes time pass differently on holiday. “Block out some unscripted time in your diary,” suggests Jessica Chilvers of the Talent Keeper Specialists, which advises businesses on how to maximise the potential of employees returning from a break. “It might be your lunch hour, the hour after the children have gone to bed, but schedule that time and decide what to do with it only when it arrives.” It’s easy to see how this time may get spent watching TV in the evening, as normal. “That’s fine,” Chilvers says. “Provided it’s a conscious choice.” Equally, you could pack your swimsuit into your workbag – think how nice that would feel – for a lunchtime swim.
9 Embrace your autumn wardrobe
It is as exciting as a summer wardrobe, just a little longer in the arm and the leg.
10 Plan day trips
“When you travel, you start to plan ahead,” McCloy says. “You get excited about the things you might do, the places you might go, the food you might eat.” Try looking at the period between now and Christmas with the same eyes with which you viewed your forthcoming holiday; plan a few trips while you are still in what McCloy calls “adventurous mode”. (If you have been back for a while, hurry.) These trips need not be expensive or to far flung places. What is important is committing to them and putting them in the diary before your risk aversion kicks in and your plasticity gets rigor mortis.
11 Recreate your holiday scent
“Holidays are very sensual experiences,” Chilvers says. “We are more attuned to sounds and smells when we are somewhere different.” The good news is that sounds and smells are more portable than you may think. If you have been to Morocco, she says, “you could download some music reminiscent of the souks in Marrakech and play it when you cook or shower. If you’ve been to Italy and enjoyed the scent of lemons, olive oil or basil in the food, or there’s a scent from a massage you had on holiday,” then burn a candle. Or just keep applying sun cream.
12 Join a club
Always wanted to tap dance, or draw, or learn to knit, or throw ceramics, or ride a horse? Sign yourself up for a short course. You will meet new people, some of whom may become friends. Even if they don’t, they will provide you with the sort of novel social interactions that will nourish your holiday plasticity. Plus, the arrival in your diary of a new fixture will upset your routine in a good way. Check out meetup.com for social groups in your area.
13 Know what sort of holidaymaker you are
If the idea of joining a club fills you with horror, you may not be a novelty-seeking sort of person. I say this as someone who has holidayed in the same apartment for five consecutive years.
14 Make a September resolution
Düzel, the plasticity expert, holidayed in Canada “and explored wildlife: bodily exhausting – a lot of novelty exposure”. Usually, the holiday feeling deserts him pretty quickly. This year, though, keen to keep up the momentum after returning, he immediately set himself the goal of training for a marathon. This is forcing him to devise new running routes around Berlin, where he lives, to meet the distances that training requires. So, it’s the perfect combination of physical activity and novelty. He is running the Frankfurt race “at the end of October”. Only two months away. That is plasticity for you.
15 Act on your epiphanies
Akhtar, the positive psychologist, says she once “had an epiphany” on a beach in Greece. She had just drunk a Greek coffee and eaten a Greek ice-cream when she looked at the blue sky and thought: “I’m going to train to be a coach.” This is not as fanciful as it sounds. I had my own epiphany, on a midweek mini-break in Surrey. I bought a big sheet of paper in the local shop and wrote down ideas for what I might do next; when I got home, I applied for a master’s in creative writing. “Holiday provides time out and a chance to reflect on what is truly important to you,” says Akhtar, pointing out that this applies to relationships as well as careers and that epiphanies can be “positive and negative”. So, if you had an epiphany while you were away, now is the time to turn your insights into action. You may change your life. Or an element of it. And that could feel like a holiday.
16 Cook with a new ingredient
You could, of course, try to recreate a dish you particularly enjoyed on holiday. But hedonic adaptation – the tendency to take for granted a source of pleasure – may thwart you here. Better to set yourself a challenge with a little more longevity and potential for ongoing novelty. Pick one new ingredient to use each week. Up the ante by making your novelty ingredient seasonal. If you think you may struggle to commit, you could sign up for a food-box subscription, thus tying your hands, because you will have to use whatever you are sent. This is how I met jerusalem artichoke and I have never regretted it.
17 Eat holiday breakfast
If you walked out early for fresh bread, find a baker near your home that can offer something similar. If you sat in a cafe with a croissant and the sort of old-school cappuccino that didn’t get ruined by the fifth wave of coffee-making, then find a place nearby that will make it your way. Admittedly, it may be a challenge to source fresh summer fruit at home (depending on where home is). Still, if you can’t find melon or fig, there is always fig jam.
18 Go outside
“Paying attention to nature is a source of very positive experiences on holiday,” says the University of Bath’s Goclowska. It can be hard to replicate the awe inspired by the Grand Canyon or Mount Fuji back home, but awe is an experience of degree. Try to get outside. Sit on your front step or your balcony or in the garden with a drink. (The last time I did this, I saw bats in the wild for the first time – and I live in east London.) If you have no outside space, sit on a wall or be the person who gets chucked out of the local park at dusk. Even if you delay switching on the telly for five minutes to squeeze in a walk around the block, noticing the trees or people or cats down your street, maybe even saying hello to the odd one, you will be holidaying in a small way.