Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, or on a ski slope, or to any other vacation spot this December, Omicron comes along.
Before news of the coronavirus variant appeared, I practiced my year-end ritual to see where I could get for a vacation.
Excitingly enough, it seemed like it was finally safe to book a trip to see family in Australia without spending most of the holiday in quarantine. Even the cost of a flight dropped from the stratosphere to the simply staggering.
“Wow,” I reported to my other half after a long session of travel site shed one night. “You can come from London to Sydney and back for less than £ 2,000.”
Five months ago, rates were advertised for up to 10 times that price, one-way.
Driven by similar jubilant travel news, many of my friends also made getaway plans. Some were desperate to see distant relatives. Others just wanted to escape a gray London winter.
It can all still happen. Or maybe not. At the time of typing, the world is still in Omicron limbo, waiting for scientists to say whether the variant is likely to bring us back to the relentless uncertainty of 2020, or not.
Either way, the idea of a vacation has become much more complicated. The good news is that it is not as disastrous as it may seem.
But you do not have to go on a long vacation, or a strange one, to enjoy the boost of a rest.
The effect of a short vacation is just as strong as that of a longer one, some studies shown, and getting away for less than five days is still a powerful way to improve health and happiness. You also do not have to go far.
“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that domestic holidays are no less enjoyable than international holidays,” 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 holidays by car or train are no less enjoyable than holidays by air.”
It is also calming to consider the reasons why we enjoy holidays so much.
Oddly enough, much of the joy comes before we even pack a toothbrush.
The pleasure of expecting a break is significant and studies suggest that it starts weeks or even months before a holiday starts.
One theory says this is 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 can also explain why the euphoria fades so quickly after break, since we were full of wanderings and do not have another rest to look forward to.
Mitas puts it slightly differently. We are “soft and slow beings”, he says, and hard-wired to survive by outsmarting our environment.
This means we suck our environment for information, such as vacuum cleaners. The impulse that constantly makes us look at our phones for new messages is linked to the pleasure we get from traveling somewhere new and different. In other words, one reason we love vacations is because we are programmed to enjoy novelty.
So what’s Mitas’ advice for those whose overseas vacation plans have been disrupted by Omicron?
First accept the blow to miss the feeling of anticipation before the journey. But secondly, if circumstances still allow it, do not give up completely. “Please go on holiday!” he says. Get out of the house. Do something else, even if only for a few days.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that, as wonderful as holidays are, we have a tendency to exaggerate their brilliance. Once back at work, the post-break night glow fades faster than we think. It has generally disappeared inside a week and lasts no more than two weeks, even after a very relaxing holiday, say researchers.
So if Omicron eventually destroys your vacation plans completely, there is still the – albeit small – consolation that the holidays would never make you feel better for as long as you thought.