After a vacation, we can't wait to hear from other people: "Your vacation was great, but do you know you'd be much better off with one week shorter? The sun's got you down – it'll turn to gas and make you sick next time!" It's a useful test of our self-confidence, but when we'd already spent money on our retreats, this really isn't the sort of alternative we want to hear. Indeed, with at least some reservations, most of us probably do prefer the luxury of having a week longer off than we have. (Even more so, with extra days added on to our annual leave, rather than fiddling with the temperature and distance of our short breaks.) The joy of our holidays is to disengage from our work selves, to be back in nature. And, let's face it, all that lounging on the beach, down by the sea, isn't exactly physically draining. Most of us long for a weekend of sun, sand and beach time. And it's this week, when we're back to work, when we want to impress everyone else with our shrunken pecs, frozen bodies and tanned legs. At most summertime getaways, we'll hear: "Well, you didn't have to pay that much – you could've gone away for less!" Come on, people: no.

The only way for us to win, though, is to convince ourselves we're exaggerating. Psychologists have tested the "blank slate effect", by which the evidence of our past experiences shapes our present values, which in turn dictate our future behaviour. Their experiments, conducted on hundreds of young adults, showed that when people imagine that they have just a simple blank slate to fall back on – no baggage, no judgmental self-opinion – they're more likely to choose a particular vacation, or to forge new romantic or business relationships. But this also explained why, if they had experienced their vacation as a waste, even these people didn't hate their day. Sooner or later, they'd no longer see it as a waste – and would be more likely to see it as a value-defining achievement. And this suggests a key reason we're so reluctant to cut our vacations short: if we imagine them to be value-defining successes, then it's hard not to work up some real stress.

One solution is to have pictures of your vacation on hand, in case you miss something. The idea isn't to don a beach shirt but to walk around a tourist trap in a panic, after deciding you've been had – these companies may even include a card, along with your package, explaining why they make sure there are never any truly awful details of your holiday on display. Sometimes, the panic is so debilitating that your brain reverses what it usually automatically dictates: you make a mental note, while you'm shopping for clothes, not to buy a pair of flip-flops, but to go for some saucy beach wear. Or, if, at the end of a week away, you feel you need to keep being physically active, then you certainly don't have to make a decision about cutting back on that great scenic walk – right after you realise, on return, how much easier it is to get a muscle in your back from skimming ice cream, sans clothes. It's simple, helpful advice, and we'd all be better off thinking of it.

[email protected]