Why do holidays seem to end before they really begin?

Summer vacation can’t come fast enough for many individuals, particularly the half of Americans who postponed their summer plans due to the outbreak last year.

But, when a vacation approaches, do you ever have the sense that it’s nearly finished before it really begins?

If this is the case, you are not alone.

In our recent investigations, Gabriela Tonietto, Sam Maglio, Eric VanEpps, and I discovered that almost half of the participants we examined thought their forthcoming weekend vacation would finish as soon as it began.
This emotion has the potential to spread. It can alter how trips are planned; for example, you may be less likely to schedule extra activities. At the same time, you may be more willing to indulge on an expensive meal in order to make the most of the little time you believe you have.

Where does this proclivity originate from? Is it possible to prevent it?

Not all occasions are created equal
When individuals anticipate something, they typically want it to occur as quickly as possible and to endure as long as feasible.

We began by investigating the impact of this mindset in the setting of Thanksgiving.

We selected Thanksgiving because it is celebrated by practically everyone in the United States, yet not everyone looks forward to it. Some folks look forward to the yearly family gathering. Others despise it, whether it’s the stress of cooking, the monotony of cleaning, or the worry of dealing with family turmoil.

So, on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019, we polled 510 individuals online to see whether they were looking forward to the holiday. Then we asked them how far away it seemed to them and how long they thought it would last. We asked them to move a 100-point slider – 0 for very short and 100 for very long – to a spot that mirrored their emotions.

As we predicted, the more participants looked forward to their Thanksgiving celebrations, the farther away and shorter it appeared. In the mind’s eye, hunger for something seems to shorten its lifespan.

Resetting the mind’s clock

Most people believe the adage “time flies when you’re having fun,” and studies have shown that when time appears to fly by, individuals perceive the work was engaging and pleasurable.

We reasoned that individuals could be exaggerating their assumptions about the link between time and enjoyment when estimating the length of future activities.

As a consequence, individuals tend to anticipate that enjoyable activities, such as holidays, will fly past. Meanwhile, longing for something might make the period leading up to the event feel endless. The combination of its starting being pushed farther away in their thoughts and its completion being drawn closer resulted in our participants thinking that something they were looking forward to would seem as if it had practically no length at all.

Thinking in terms of hours and days

Our objective was to demonstrate how these two judgements of an event – the fact that it seems further away while also being expected to endure less time – may essentially remove the event’s length in the mind’s eye.

We reasoned that if we didn’t clearly emphasise these two independent elements – and instead questioned them directly about the length of the event – a lesser percentage of respondents would give absolutely no duration for something they were looking forward to.

In another research, we put this notion to the test by having participants view two five-minute films back-to-back. We characterised the second video as either funny or dull, and then asked them how long they expected each video would last.

Participants expected that the amusing video would still seem shorter and further away than the dull one. However, we discovered that participants expected it would continue somewhat longer than the replies we obtained in previous trials.

This discovery provides a strategy to avoid this skewed perception: concentrate on the true duration. Because participants in this research specifically indicated how long the amusing video would continue – rather than the perceived interval between its beginning and conclusion – they were considerably less likely to anticipate it would stop exactly as it began.

While it may seem apparent, we often depend on our subjective perceptions – rather than actual measurements of time – to determine how lengthy a period of time will seem and how to effectively spend it.