When it comes to happiness, “memorable” can trump “fun”

(Laura’s note: this is a guest post of mine that ran on I Should Log Off, the blog of Danny and Jillian Tobias. Alert readers will recognize them from ATM as the couple that spent two years traveling the world).

Here’s something I find fun: a massage.

Here’s something I don’t find fun: spending the first night of a vacation in a half-flooded roadside motel in the Catskills that’s lost power and plumbing due to Hurricane Irene. My family (my husband, 7.5-months pregnant me, my 4-year-old and almost 2-year-old) is stuck there because downed trees and flood-buckled bridges have shut all the roads.  

Yet if you ask me about my road trip to Maine right before Labor Day this past year, I’d say the trip was “great.” We did have lots of fun in Acadia after the hurricane fiasco, but I think the tracks laid down in my brain by the initial nightmare heightened the whole experience. I view the trip as something I will remember my entire life.

Whereas I don’t remember my last massage. Looking back on my life, I think I’ll be happier if I’ve had more memorable experiences, rather than fewer.

Call it the paradox of happiness. Things that make you happy in retrospect are not always fun to live through. I’ve been thinking about that lesson as I try to figure out what to do with my small children for our vacations over the next few years. Traveling with small kids is not easy. There’s all the stuff you wind up packing, the eternal hunt for hotels with cribs, eating in restaurants when your kids want to crawl on the floor, the constant need for bathrooms. Plus I’m not even sure they’ll remember what we do! It would be easier — and certainly more immediately pleasurable — to just hang out at home and spend the money on shoes.

But the experiencing self is not necessarily the best judge of what is good in life. If it was, we’d never do anything but watch TV. We might want to have sex, but that would involve going out and finding someone to do it with — and that takes more effort than turning on the TV. A better judge is the remembering self — the self that looks back on what has happened, creates a narrative arc and passes judgment on all things in context. The remembering self likes a good story. And travel with kids is sure to produce them.

That’s why, even if some travel isn’t immediately “fun,” I still think it’s a good use of money. It buys happiness — just not in the way one might assume.

photo courtesy flickr user Gary Brownell

9 thoughts on “When it comes to happiness, “memorable” can trump “fun”

    1. @N&M- sounds traumatic. I have no choice but to pass through between the lands of Manhattan (for professional reasons) and the wilds of PA (home).

  1. Your description brought back memories of the family camping trips of my youth. It ALWAYS rained!

    I think the happiness paradox you mentioned may explain why having children is so important as we get older. While many of the day to day tasks involved in child care aren’t fun, we won’t remember the middle of the night vomiting or diaper blowouts.

    1. @Carrie- though it’s funny, because I’ve forced myself to remember how terribly UNFUN the last few weeks (months?) of pregnancy are. No illusions. Doesn’t mean I won’t ever do it again, but I think life in general is spun as too Hallmark-y.

    2. A male engineer friend (and not a baby person) has a great quote on this: “I want to HAVE HAD children.”

  2. It is certainly true that a lot of my best travel stories weren’t so much fun at the time (like the time we were misinformed by our guidebook about the distance from the Melaka bus station to our hotel, and over-negotiated with the cab driver, who then got us blacklisted with all the cab drivers….)

    I also think that if you want to enjoy travel with young kids, you have to (1) have realistic expectations, and (2) remember that some things suck no matter where you are- for instance, on our last family trip mealtimes were a real struggle. Our 2 year old basically caused us to eat every meal tag team style. My husband brings that up whenever I say it was an awesome, fun vacation (and it was!) – I always have to remind him that she made mealtimes a struggle at home at that point, too.

    1. @Cloud- so true that the kids likely won’t be better behaved while traveling than they are at home. I think the stress comes from the fact that, while traveling, you can employ fewer of your normal coping mechanisms. At home, the 3-year-old who races through dinner can be dismissed to go play with his toys if he won’t sit. At a restaurant, you’re chasing him around other people’s tables. But I love their earnestness. When we took a 6 hour car trip in the middle of Christmas vacation 2 years ago, when J was 2 and S was 3 months, after we’d been in for 5 hours, J piped up from the backseat “I’d like to get out now.” Just mentioning it, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to anyone else, and we were just sitting in a car for 5 hours because it was fun….

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