I just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. It’s a good book. It made me think about all sorts of things such as life, decisions, accomplishments, goals and values. Gilbert says humans are happier when they anticipate something than when they actually live it. More intriguing is the fact that their memories of the event live up to the anticipation levels of happiness, despite the fact that the actual experience was not that highly rated when it happened. So we can’t accurately predict how happy something we want to do will make us, therefore we are prone to making bad decisions regarding our future.
Do We Really Need Awesome Trips to Be Happy?
In my understanding, it means that as long as we believe a trip will be awesome, it doesn’t actually matter how it will really turn out. When it’s done, we are going to remember it as being much better than it really was. This explains why most people speak highly about their travels and vacations, as if nothing bad ever happened to them while traveling. I would have believed it was the ego that didn’t allow people to admit they had a crappy holiday. Everything had to be amazing, to give other people reasons for appreciation or maybe for envy. According to Daniel Gilbert, people are genuine when they remember their amazing travels. Does this mean our real experience doesn’t matter much in the big scheme of things? Once the vacation gone, are we still going to have great memories about it for the rest of our lives? Is this how our mind works? Do we really turn crap into gold with nothing else than our brain and a little time? Why bother spending so many hours researching such and such place or such and such hotel, when in fact we should just spend time thinking what would give us the most excitement?
How to Stay Away From Bad Travel Experiences
Gilbert says we are less unique than we think, therefore we can safely trust the experience of our peers as a basis of making our own life decisions. He also says that most of us won’t probably do it, even knowing that it works, and that’s only because of our ego. What if we ask somebody who’s already under the good memories effect? She’d tell us she had an awesome trip, when in fact it was pretty bad, but the person lives those memories up to her anticipation excitement level?
My Experience That Confirms Daniel Gilbert’s Theory
I would have expected memories of an event to be closer to what we actually lived than to what we anticipated. Funny enough, one of my travels is just in line with Gilbert’s reasoning. Several years ago, I visited Egypt, in what I used to call “a forgettable trip”. Everything seemed extremely bad: Cairo scared me, Luxor shocked me, my stomach did not agree with Egyptian food, the bus we spent so much time in was one of the least comfortable I’ve ever seen and the list could go on. When I returned, I wrote three long articles about my journey, articles full of details that made it such a bad experience, but also full of beautiful photos of Egypt. I published them on my travel blog. One of my readers left a comment which I still remember. She said it was odd that my “forgettable” trip produced a series of three detailed stories.
I still have those articles on my hard drive, so when I started this blog, I considered publishing them here. After reading them again, I was surprised to see they don’t represent my current feelings that much. My rating of that trip and of Egypt traveling in general is much higher today than it was just after my return. I still remember details which sucked at the time, but the intensity of the feelings they awaken is diminished.
Now I feel rather happy that I saw camels from very close, although they had a pretty bad smell.
I’m amused that I went inside the small pyramid, although after descending what seemed like a thousand steps, all that was at the end of the tunnel was an Egyptian dressed in a white robe, begging for money. The funniest of all was that we were not allowed to take our photo and video cameras inside, as if there was some ancient secret sheltered in there. I guess that’s a bit of marketing. It worked for me: if in the beginning I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit the pyramids inside, after I heard about the restrictions, my curiosity simply skyrocketed and I was happy to pay and eager to see what proved to be the void deep inside.
I smile when I remember what we used to call “Egyptian hours”: whenever we were told something was going to take two hours, it usually took about eight.
I understood how horrible Romanian buildings can look to people from not-so-crowded regions of the world. My mind could not accept people can be happy living in dwellings like most Egyptian homes I’ve passed by.
It’s fun to think about the stay in Hurghada, in one of those all-inclusive resorts, where we had the surprise to see the first rain in the past five years (hotel staff dixit).
I learned a lesson in the Valley of the Kings, which I thought was pretty cool: avoid organized trips like the plague, if you are still in power and you want to enjoy places at your own pace. I still wonder what those merchants with booths all around the Valley exit sold. Unfortunately, I had to run down from the top of the hill to meet our group which was about to leave. I probably didn’t miss much, touristic souvenirs were pretty much the same across all Egypt.
It’s cool that together with a few friends, I skipped the visit to the National Museum of Cairo and went for a brief visit in the Coptic Quartier. Copts are Christians, they are the largest religious minority in Egypt and they still hold onto their values and beliefs to this day. Coptic Christians have their own community and church in Cairo (and in other cities as well). Walking on those streets was maybe the coolest experience of the entire trip.
It was interesting to see how street crossing can be a challenging experience. When the street is an eight-lane avenue, you can sweat by simply crossing it as much as you’d sweat if you played table tennis for two hours. There’s this saying which goes very well in here: “When in Rome, do like the Romans”. Got it? Egyptians are truly the street-crossing champions. Who cares about traffic lights? Negotiation is way more useful if you don’t want to get stuck on one side of the road for ever or until the last car passes, whichever comes first.
It was impressive to see how much time it takes a convoy of about 50 buses to get moving, once it stopped for a break. It was surprising to see that even so, our bus managed to get lost from the convoy. It was hilarious to see a 40 people bus was guarded by one single soldier with a shotgun for about half of the desert crossing we’ve gone through to Luxor.
Luxor is awesome. Those pharaohs loved their huge pillars, obelisks and statues. I loved the story about one of the pharaohs, who wanted to save some money from the national budget and had the name tags on the former pharaoh’s statues deleted and replaced with his name. How did historians catch him with the lie? He forgot to switch names on the statues of his wife.
The town of Luxor is nothing like the old temple once was. All that can be seen these days are run-down buildings, goats roaming freely on the streets, dirt, smells and poverty. Ah, I almost forgot the bazaar, the place where you could buy almost anything from batteries to papyrus presents.
It’s hilarious to stand on the Asswan dam and ask where the Asswan dam is. “You are standing on it”. Do I? I had no idea!
Did I enjoy that trip? Probably yes, judging how excited I got while choosing photos for this article.
Would I ever go back to Egypt? Most probably no.
Despite what Daniel Gilbert says, fear remains my dominant feeling towards this place. To this day I associate Cairo with dust, smells, noise and a feeling that you are permanently watched by millions of eyes, millions of hands waiting for the right moment to grab you and throw you in some dark tomb to never see daylight again. I have no clue why I got that feeling of chased rabbit. All people I got in contact with were nice and polite, nothing scary happened, but despite this, I didn’t feel welcome at all during the whole trip. That’s unforgettable.
I want to hear from you now. Did you read “Stumbling on Happiness”? Did you only have awesome trips in your life? How can you relate to memories of an event in your life being more highly evaluated than the event itself?