#VacationGoals: Regulating Smartphone Use to Promote, Rather than Detract from the Vacation Experience

When I visited the Taj Mahal for the first time, I could feel its expansiveness, and was inquisitive about its history. Lately, however, when I am on vacation, it is harder than usual to bask in the view. However crisp the air, or blue the skies, it takes a concerted effort to brush past the emotions aroused by the last text I received, or to pull my attention away from the Instagram filters at my disposal.

With the skyrocketing dependence on multi-tasking via smartphone devices, how does the distracted “tourist gaze” (i..e., a lens through which you can focus on features of the landscape , in a way that is distinct from daily experience) affect people’s vacation experiences? A study by Julian K. Ayeh, a Professor of Tourism at UAE University, sheds light on this.

The Influence of Multi-Function Mobile Media Devices on the Tourist Gaze

To delve into what happens when the tourist gaze is “distracted” by our constant engagement with smartphones, Ayeh recruited a total of 42 participants, held focus groups, supplementing this information with in-depth interviews. The focus groups consisted of three groups of American tourists travelling overseas (between 18-24 years of age). In addition to this, information from 22 individual in-depth interviews (participants’ chosen to encompass a wide range of nationalities, their ages ranging from 21-57 years) was also obtained.

While some tourists found aspects of mobile phone use during vacations enriching (with finding good food being a Yelp search away, for instance), most reported smartphone use being a reflex; they were so used to it, they could not avoid fidgeting with it. They were unable to fully take in the sights and sounds around them, and were affected by the stresses that followed them from remaining wired to the world they’d left behind. This not only diluted the time they had in their getaway of choice, they also felt a loss of value for money spent. It detracted from the sense of well-being a vacation is anticipated to bring and affected the potential for social interaction with other tourists, especially when on a group tour.

While Ayeh’s study builds a solid argument for the use of mobile device detracting from the “tourist gaze”, he acknowledges that since it is based on qualitative findings (i.e., the subjective experiences of the three groups of American tourists), it is not fully generalizable to the world at large. The study does, however, provide a basis for larger, multidisciplinary and cross-cultural research on the problem.

Feeling Well While Wired on Vacation

Jaime Kurtz’s The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations, sprinkled with references to technology detracting from the vacation experience, too, in many ways, tackles the problem of the distracted tourist gaze. While glossy travel pamphlets market destinations as being a place to wind down and relax, Kurtz, a professor of psychology at James Madison University and a happiness researcher, laments that while there are exhaustive travel guides on what to see, which route to take to see it, and the even the best time of the year to see it, we are not taught “how to see”. How to we use technology to promote, rather than detract from a vacation “state” of mind?

1.  Use Technology Actively: Active use of interactive media (such as recording memories, planning the vacation) is associated with a positive impact on life satisfaction and well-being, compared to passive uses of interactive media (scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feed).

2.  Cultivate Mindfulness: To be mindful means to slip into non-judgemental, open awareness of the present moment. Studies point to mindfulness being associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, and higher levels of happiness, energy, optimism and self esteem.

Recommendations from The Happy Traveler to use technology actively and cultivate mindfulness include:

o Sending out the last work email, and taking steps to make sure everyone knows you are on vacation before you hop on the flight to the exotic retreat (to minimize, as much as possible, bringing your worries to your trip; to reduce mind-clutter, allowing you to focus more freely on the present moment)

o Unplugging (from smartphones and laptops) during mealtimes, to slow down, just eat (screen-free) by focusing on your food, chewing slowly, noticing the effects the food has on your feelings, and to stop when your body feels full  

o  Taking photographs early on in the visit (to say, the Eiffel tower), before switching off, and focusing on the sights, sounds, and sensations of the experience by itself

o  Not taking more than five photographs at a time, for photography to stay creative, active, focusing on complex nuances of the experience rather than resorted to as a reflexive, passive practice

o  Posting photos on social-media after vacation, rather than during, to avoid being consistently connected to social-media, and engaging in social comparisons (whether upward or downward, social-comparisons are described by Kurtz as being the “thief of joy”, as they are self-focused, and detract from a sense of well-being)

3.   Savor the Good Times: While mindfulness refers to a nonjudgmental awareness that can be positive, negative or neutral, savoring involves actively directing attention towards positive aspects of your vacation. Savoring can take place in the present, happen retrospectively as you reflect on your experience, or even occur in the heady anticipation of the trip you are about to take. Beliefs on savoring has been found to affect vacation enjoyment, making savoring a worthy practice.

Savoring requires focus (as you cannot savor on divided attention), and being fully engaged in the present experience. It helps in prolonging and enhancing the pleasure derived from the positive experience. Kurtz’ recommendations (in The Happy Traveler) to savor vacation experiences include:

  • Journaling gratitude, by writing about three things you are grateful for every vacation-day, as gratitude practice relates to humility and focusing on aspects outside of ourselves

  • Writing about, or talking about, over dinner, the best thing that happened that day, and expanding on that moment

  • Appreciating the now through drawing, to capture and hone in on those finer nuances of the experience (such as a monument, or a shell on the beach!); you need not be an expert artist to benefit from this exercise

  • Posting pictures and videos on social-media after the vacation not only helps you experience the present moment mindfully, it also helps you savor your positive feelings about and pleasurable reflections of your vacation beyond the trip.

What’s great about the research Kurtz discusses, and the evidence-based recommendations that emerge from it, is that it encourages vacation practices that can be carried over to your post-vacation life. It is easier to be mindful, to take time out to savor awe-inspiring experiences, and feel grateful for all you’ve had the opportunity to experience when you’re on vacation. With practice, it can help us stay well, humble, undistracted, and attentive beyond vacation-time, to the wonderful things that enrich our everyday lives.

Pooja Sathyanarayanan