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Take shorter breaks more often for the happiest time off

The best way to extract full value from a holiday is to interrupt it with some work, says a leisure study

It's the annual highlight for millions of Brits: two weeks doing nothing on a beach. But holidaymakers could be missing a trick by taking long breaks, new research suggests. A number of short trips leaves people happier than one long one, psychologists believe.

What's more, seeking out a holiday you might not enjoy at the time will pay off in the long run by providing better memories, the behavioural economist Dan Ariely argues in a new book, The Upside of Irrationality. His findings come as official figures show the number of visits abroad by British residents has slumped, leaving Europe's biggest holiday companies with thousands of unsold summer breaks.

Tom Meyvis, associate professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business and an expert on consumer behaviour, claimed: "Longer vacations don't give us better memories. We forget how long things actually take and just remember peak moments." He added: "Vacations are not always that much fun, but we anticipate them as fun and remember the good parts, not, for example, the bad bus journey."

For maximum vacation fun, experts actually suggest breaking up a trip with a spot of work, to delay the so-called "adaptation process" that makes holidays spent in the same place appear to speed up as the days go by. Professor Ariely, who teaches at North Carolina's Duke University, said: "On a long vacation, day seven is less good than day one because it's not as exciting. That's why in general, going away four times [a year] provides more benefit than you would expect, and going away for one week provides less benefit than you would expect."

Although a lucrative mini-break market has sprung up to cater for demand for shorter trips, most employees – and families – still take at least one longer holiday, usually in August, as a glance around most offices across Britain will confirm.

If your bags are packed ready for a fortnight away, then Professor Meyvis's research might help you get the most from your time off. He discovered that disrupting a hedonistic experience helped to intensify it. So tearing yourself away from a day at the beach to tidy up your hotel room would make your holiday more fun. "We found a strong preference for not breaking up a positive experience, but it turns out that when you gave [our respondents] a break, they enjoyed something more. It's counterintuitive; nobody wants to take a break, but the break disrupts the adaptation process so the enjoyment goes back to the original level," he said.

Charlotte Robinson, 35, a consultant radiologist who lives in Maidenhead, said she could still visualise the high points of childhood summer holidays, even if on paper they did not sound very good. "I remember a gîte in France where it rained, the roof leaked, the septic tank overflowed, and we had power cuts, but what I really remember is the fields of sunflowers, the bicycle that came with the gîte and us calling my mother Speedy Gonzales as she cycled around, smiling, with the wind in her hair," she said.

Not all behavioural economists back the mini-break logic. Tim Harford, the author of Dear Undercover Economist, said: "Some psychologists suggest that there's a bigger psychic payoff from taking more, shorter holidays. But remember the hassle of packing and airports or traffic jams, the time it takes to get anywhere, and the expense of taking more short breaks. If you pack three times as many holidays into the same amount of leave, you can expect three times as much trouble. It's not obvious to me that it's worth it."

Less is more: The case for the micro holiday

Emma Cotton, 35, from London, says: "My most enduring and best holiday memories are from action holidays. On short trips away I have surfed on the longest board known to man in Portugal; been flung through the air kite surfing in Egypt; hiked through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and been on walking trips in the Basque area of Spain. Most of these have resulted in a severe sense of humour failure at some stage, but they were all exhilarating, tiring in the best sense of the word, and above all, memorable."