I have something to confess; I do not particularly like to travel. I mean, of course I like to travel. I’ve been to China, Uganda, Morocco, and all over Europe. But I seem to like it less than most people.
I think I also felt a little pressured to go. There’s something shameful about admitting that you do not want to travel, that you would rather stay at home and eat familiar food and visit familiar places and have a good time doing familiar things. Most people think this is sort of wimpy, that you need to go out and push yourself (no, pain, no gain). They say that you don’t want to get old and regret that you didn’t take adventures.
At this point, I would point out that I’m not sure the “fear of regret” is always the best motivator (travel proponents often claim that it is what motivates people NOT to travel). Anyway I went to Morocco. The question is, did I have a good time? I find it surprisingly hard to answer that question, particularly now, five years after the fact. Let me explain.
A lot of the time in Morocco I was uncomfortable. I got a bit of an upset stomach, which is to be expected. More than that I was uncomfortable; Morocco is a safe enough place for a tourist but it’s a bit unsettling. The streets have no signs and look all the same so you spend a lot of time feeling (or being) lost. People are pretty aggressive about coming up and asking for money, and just about everyone is trying to rip you off (not for very much money, but still).
I saw a lot of amazing sights, but really, in the moment, what is it to see an amazing sight? You stare at an ancient minaret and you’re like “Wow!” Then thirty seconds pass and well, there it is, and there you are. After you take a few pictures you’re ready to go. I often feel curiously empty in the face of great monuments, like I'm not feeling what I'm supposed to.
So if you ask how many moment in Morocco was I “happy” compared to how many I was “unhappy”, it was probably closer to 50/50 than I’d like to admit. Certainly the ratio was probably much worse than it would have been had I stayed in Ireland and drank my face off.
But I don’t want you to get the idea I regret going. Not at all. Once I got back and put my pictures up on Facebook, and received about a million comments on how great they looked, I started to feel differently about the trip. Although I’d been uncomfortable, I had something to show for it. I probably picked up more “memories” during the ten days in Morocco than I did in any ten day period in Ireland (in fact, there were many ten day stretches in Ireland I can barely remember at all). I get a strong satisfaction from looking over those pictures even now, more so than I do from looking at pictures of me rolling on the ground in dingy pubs.
So you could say that the decision to go to Morocco was the correct one, in the long term, and I think you’d be partially correct. But you have to be careful about putting memory on a pedestal. Because you’re basically saying that because I remember the experience of being in Morocco as a pleasant one, so it was. But it wasn’t. Right? Remember? It wasn’t.
Maybe what happened with the trip to Morocco was a case of “no pain no gain.” But it could also be a process called by Daniel Kahneman “the tyranny of memory.” He described an experiment when test subjects were made to chose between two procedures, both of which they had already experienced. In the first one, they had to keep their hands in cold water for 60 second. In the second, they had to keep their hands in cold water for ninety seconds, but the water started to warm up towards the end. The test subjects overwhelmingly (80%) chose the second experience, even though (and this is important) it was objectively worse than the first, because the happy ending colored their memory.
Kahnman also wrote of a student who listened to a very long album quite happily until it screeched at the end. The student said the screech “ruined the whole experience.” Kahnman wrote:
But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened ...
Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decision. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.
I’m not suggesting we should live entirely for the moment. If you, for example, eat too much and never exercise, you might be following a fleeting impulse in the moment but you would be condemning yourself to longer term unhappiness, or a shorter life. Sometimes there is no gain without pain.
But the tyranny of memory is very real. It is quite possible to live your life misguided by your own memory, like the students leaving their hands in the cold water for longer than they need to, because you do not remember what exactly happened. I’m glad I went to Morocco – but can I trust that gladness?