Novelty and the Pursuit of Happiness

 

Back in 2003, when my daughter was still in kindergarten, we took a week-long vacation to a little place called White Lake, NC. It’s a place where my wife had vacationed often as a child, and I’d been there once or twice, but as a family we hadn’t gotten into the habit of taking summer vacations. This was a new thing, and I wasn’t sure I’d like it: a week away from the comforts of home?

But I needn’t have worried. It didn’t take me long to relax and begin to enjoy the change of scenery. I spent my days taking naps, reading, going for long walks, and having a blast playing in the water with my daughter. We played miniature golf at the nearby Putt-Putt. In the evenings we drove to nearby Elizabethtown for dinner at some of the restaurants there. On our last evening, I walked to the end of the pier and looked out over the quiet lake, thinking back over the week we’d just had. It was a bittersweet moment: tears came to my eyes as I thought about how much fun we’d had and about the impending return to the normal routine.

I’d enjoyed that week so much that the following year I was eager to do it again. And so we did. We went back to White Lake and stayed in the same cabin; I filled my days with the same activities, and we made a point of revisiting our favorite Elizabethtown restaurants. As that second White Lake vacation came to an end, I walked to the end of the pier in a conscious attempt at recreating that emotional moment from a year before. Once again I felt that mix of happiness and sadness. I remember asking myself: why do I get to feel this way only once per year?

It became a tradition: the White Lake vacation. Every year I looked forward to it; every year we did the same activities, in keeping with tradition. It was like checking off items on a checklist. Daily walk: check. Swimming in the afternoon: check. Putt-Putt: check. Favorite restaurants: check. Traditional walk to the end of the pier on the last night in town: check.

As the years went on, I started to feel like something was missing. I wasn’t enjoying the vacations so much anymore. I still remembered how happy I’d been that first time, and I desperately wanted to recapture that feeling, but the more I tried the more elusive it seemed. The activities that we’d always enjoyed so much didn’t seem quite as fun anymore, but I didn’t understand why.

Then one day, as I was on one of my long walks, I realized that I’d fallen into an old trap, one that I had dug for myself. That first White Lake vacation had been so enjoyable in part because it had been a novel experience, a departure from the routine. I’d enjoyed it so much that I’d tried to recreate it over and over, but that doesn’t work. I called it tradition, but all I had done was create a new routine.

This is a battle I have fought with myself for my entire life. I am, to an almost pathological degree, attached to the comfortable and familiar. I develop habits and cling to them because I naturally resist change. Yet, at the same time, I need change. Everybody does: neurological research has shown that personal satisfaction and fulfillment (happiness, for want of a better term) depends on novel experiences.

But I never seem to learn the lesson. When I enjoy a new experience, my natural inclination is to want to do it again and again. The new becomes the familiar, the scary becomes the comfortable, and once again I’ve built myself a set of “traditions” that, eventually, drain the joy from whatever I’m doing.

I don’t know that I’ll ever win this battle because it can be very pleasant to cling to the comfortable and the familiar. But the older I get, the more conscious I am of how short life is, and of how much of mine I cannot account for. Year after year, day after day, walking around in the same footprints, accumulating no new experiences. The time vanishes without a trace. There are entire years of my life about which I remember nothing, not a single novel or remarkable thing I did. Those years were pleasant, but a pleasant life is not necessarily a satisfying one. When I reach the end of mine I’d rather look back on a life full of memorable experiences than a life full of leisure.

In 2010, we went to White Lake for the eighth and last time. Since then we’ve taken family vacations to various places, but nothing has become a new routine. More importantly, though, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for those annual vacations to feel the happiness that comes from new experiences. It doesn’t take much: any departure from the normal routine can make a lasting memory. As hard as it is for me to let go of tradition, I’ve started to see the intrinsic value of novelty. Rather than shying away from unfamiliar experiences, I’m more likely to give them a try, because newness itself might be enough to make it worthwhile.

(I was going to write more, but it’s almost 11:30 AM, and I always go to lunch at 11:30. Tradition, you know.)

There are 17 comments.

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  1. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Strong insight.  Thanks, Bart.

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: More importantly, though, I realized that I didn’t have to wait for those annual vacations to feel the happiness that comes from new experiences. It doesn’t take much: any departure from the normal routine can make a lasting memory.

    What a wonderful teaching, BXO! You learned such an important lesson. Opening up that space for new things will inspire other kinds of creativity, too. And I would add that it might not have been your making the same trip every year, but as you said, trying to duplicate the experience was a big part of the problem. You might have been able to go back again, but change up the things you did, the places you visited, and try new activities. Still, you are definitely on the right track and it sounds terrific!

    • #2
  3. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: (I was going to write more, but it’s almost 11:30 AM, and I always go to lunch at 11:30. Tradition, you know.)

    That cracked me up after all the rest you had written.

    • #3
  4. Songwriter Member
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Great post. I can identify. The urge toward the familiar is strong in me.

    • #4
  5. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    And I would add that it might not have been your making the same trip every year, but as you said, trying to duplicate the experience was a big part of the problem. You might have been able to go back again, but change up the things you did, the places you visited, and try new activities.

    This is definitely true. I didn’t go into this in the post, but we actually fell into a similar trap with repeated visits to Washington, D.C. We got into the habit of always hitting the same favorites: the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial. It started to seem routine, and I even discovered that on several different visits I’d taken basically identical pictures of the same things from the same angles.

    So the last time we went to D.C. we made a point of not doing anything we’d ever done before. We actually ended up not going into D.C. proper at all, but spent the whole time visiting things in some of the outlying suburbs (like Arlington Cemetery and the Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport). We had a great time and didn’t miss the old favorites at all.

    I’m not sure that kind of approach would work at White Lake, because there just isn’t that much to do there. But the point is valid!

     

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I think I’m going to have to have my wife read this.


    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series on the theme of “Novel.” If you have anything novel to say on that theme, we still have four openings available in the City of November. Wouldn’t you like to sign up on our schedule and sign-up sheet right now?

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    And I would add that it might not have been your making the same trip every year, but as you said, trying to duplicate the experience was a big part of the problem. You might have been able to go back again, but change up the things you did, the places you visited, and try new activities.

    This is definitely true. I didn’t go into this in the post, but we actually fell into a similar trap with repeated visits to Washington, D.C. We got into the habit of always hitting the same favorites: the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial. It started to seem routine, and I even discovered that on several different visits I’d taken basically identical pictures of the same things from the same angles.

    So the last time we went to D.C. we made a point of not doing anything we’d ever done before. We actually ended up not going into D.C. proper at all, but spent the whole time visiting things in some of the outlying suburbs (like Arlington Cemetery and the Air and Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport). We had a great time and didn’t miss the old favorites at all.

    I’m not sure that kind of approach would work at White Lake, because there just isn’t that much to do there. But the point is valid!

    Excellent! So you’re already experienced at taking new adventures. I hope you have many more family vacations that allow you to explore and learn and grow!

    • #7
  8. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):
    Washington, D.C. We got into the habit of always hitting the same favorites: the Air and Space Museum,

    Have you been to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio? It’s an easy day-long drive from where you are and the scenery is great. I think it’s even better than the Air and Space Museum – and that’s saying something cause it is really good.

    And there’s lots you can combine it with depending on interests.

    • #8
  9. Trink Coolidge
    Trink
    @Trink

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: I am, to an almost pathological degree, attached to the comfortable and familiar. I develop habits and cling to them because I naturally resist change. Yet, at the same time, I need change.

    Okay, but no one could accuse you of lack of self-awareness.

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: The time vanishes without a trace. There are entire years of my life about which I remember nothing, not a single novel or remarkable thing I did. Those years were pleasant, but a pleasant life is not necessarily a satisfying one

    Seems we suffer from a similar affliction.  My husband recalls the simplest year’s experiences with happy enthusiasm .  My antidote is to try to be aware and  grateful to have relationships, sight, mobility and decent longevity.   I have dear friends and family who had to depart this unique existence much too soon.  That awareness helped making raking leaves today a little more “novel” :)

    • #9
  10. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Nice post, Bartholomew.

    Arahant (View Comment):
    I think I’m going to have to have my wife read this.

    Really?  I’ve been under the impression that you are the one who hates to leave home.

    • #10
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I’ve been under the impression that you are the one who hates to leave home.

    I’m comfortable everywhere and have no routines. My wife, on the other hand, would have the same meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, were she allowed. As it is, her breakfast and lunch have been the same for years.

    • #11
  12. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I’ve been under the impression that you are the one who hates to leave home.

    I’m comfortable everywhere and have no routines. My wife, on the other hand, would have the same meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, were she allowed. As it is, her breakfast and lunch have been the same for years.

    take her out and don’t tell her where you’re going…

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    take her out and don’t tell her where you’re going…

    I may just do that tomorrow. I just have to find a restaurant where I have some options on what to eat.

    • #13
  14. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    take her out and don’t tell her where you’re going…

    I may just do that tomorrow. I just have to find a restaurant where I have some options on what to eat.

    That reminds me, we had Arahant Pie just the other night.  That’s what we call the recipe you posted for a quiche with pepperoni and salami in a tortilla crust.

    • #14
  15. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    That reminds me, we had Arahant Pie just the other night. That’s what we call the recipe you posted for a quiche with pepperoni and salami in a tortilla crust.

    Did you enjoy it?

    • #15
  16. Arthur Beare Member
    Arthur Beare
    @ArthurBeare

    Insightful and important essay.  Thank you BXO..

    The allure of novelty is vastly underappreciated by most of us.  It figures into an awful lot of our decisions, probably many more than we realize..  For instance, it drives a lot of impulse purchases.  And more consequential – and often very bad – decisions as well: infidelity anyone?

    • #16
  17. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    That reminds me, we had Arahant Pie just the other night. That’s what we call the recipe you posted for a quiche with pepperoni and salami in a tortilla crust.

    Did you enjoy it?

    Oh yeah.  This is probably the third time my wife has made it.

    • #17

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