MAY 16, 2006 — One of the hardest things about travel journalism is avoiding the constant urge to pen the classic travel cliche, “Half the fun is getting there,” at the end of an essay. (Other variations of this cliche include John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” and Saturday Night Live’s, “It’s funny that pirates were always going around searching for treasure, and they never realized that the real treasure was the fond memories they were creating.”) It’s a hard urge to resist because like most cliches, it’s true — so often, the thrill of anticipation during the journey overshadows the pleasure of arriving at the destination itself.
Why is this? Sometimes, a journey to a destination empirically provides more thrilling events than the destination ever could. For example, if you’re driving to the dentist via Disneyland, or you’re cross-country road-tripping on the way to visiting your mother-in-law for Thanksgiving, there’s no mystery to why your trip will end up being more pleasurable than the destination. Usually though, bad writers reserve the “Half the fun…” cliche for expeditions in which the delight of the journey came as a surprise, typically because over-anticipation made the goal a let-down.
For example, imagine you have been waiting your entire life to save enough money to road-trip to the Grand Canyon. On the way, you end up getting lost, and then, after some hilarious and wacky antics and run-ins with the police, you come face-to-face with Paul Reubens dressed as Pee-Wee Herman in the middle of the Arizona desert. When you navigate around him and finally arrive at America’s biggest hole in the ground, you’re inevitably disappointed due to the anticipation of seeing a Canyon that pales in comparison to the one you’ve been building up in your head. Even worse, you may have been so obsessed with finally seeing the Grand Canyon that you never had time to enjoy Paul Reubens’s company.
Anticipation is a complicated thing. This weekend, three friends and I decided to hike to Lake Serene, an elegant alpine lagoon in the shadow of Mount Index (made famous by the title sequence of the David Lynch 1990s television masterpiece Twin Peaks). In accordance with my typical pre-hike protocol, we stocked up on deli sandwiches, dried apricots, Rice Krispies Treats, and Oberto beef jerky. My friend Justin carried the sandwiches in his backpack, and I carried the other food as we began the eight-mile roundtrip hike to the lake. We agreed that when we reached the lake but not before, we would partake in a glorious picnic of sandwiches and Rice Krispies Treats.
Apparently, I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast; about halfway up the mountain, I started hearing a voice in my head. With each step, the voice repeated. “Italian. Grinder. Italian. Grinder.” As we pressed on through snow-covered trails and an ever-decreasing temperature (it’s still early in the Pacific Northwest hiking season), I could only think of one thing: “Italian. Grinder. Italian. Grinder.” As my anticipation of the world’s most magnificent Mediterranean sandwich grew, I started seeing images of Justin, lying bloody on the trail, beaten to pulp with prosciutto and gruyere strewn about his body as I wolfed down the last of the lunch food. “Italian. Grinder.” Lake Serene seemed to never come. “Italian. Grinder.” It was always around “just one more bend.” “Italian. Grinder.” Where was it?! “Italian. Grinder.” Suddenly, a yell from ahead indicated that the still frozen-over lake had been spotted. “Italian. Grinder.” With one last burst of energy, we arrived exhausted on the lake’s banks and it took all of my remaining will to sit, well-behaved, while Justin unpacked the sandwiches. “Italian. Grinder.” The time between the unwrapping of the sandwiches and the first taste seemed an eternity. “Italian. Grinder.” And then, well, the sandwich was fine. It certainly wasn’t the best sandwich or even the best Italian grinder I had ever eaten, but I didn’t die of starvation either. Somehow, the anticipation of eating the sandwich was much, much more exciting that the actual consuming of the sandwich.
How can we possibly enjoy life if the anticipation of a goal is always better than the achievement of that goal? Maybe the answer is that we should spend our lives in a state of continual anticipation and completely avoid achieving goals. Upon reaching Lake Serene, maybe I should have convinced my fellow hikers that we would have enjoyed our sandwiches significantly more if we waited until returning to my car to eat them. Then, upon reaching the car, I could have convinced them to wait until arriving in Leavenworth, our next destination. In Leavenworth, I could have convinced them that by simply waiting yet again until the next day to eat, our anticipation would be heightened even more, and so on.
Journalist Steven E. Landsburg argues that the tragedy of this strategy is that you never get to anticipate eating the sandwich, because you’re clever enough to foresee the entire event sequence in advance. As a result, if you love looking forward to Italian grinders, and you know that you love looking forward to Italian grinders, then you can never look forward to one.
The Italian Grinder Problem manifests itself in many facets of life. You desperately want a promotion, but when you get it, all you can think about is getting promoted again to the next level. You think that finding a long-term mate and getting married will solve your social and emotional problems, but after capturing a mate, you quickly feel trapped. Does this mean humans can never be happy? Not necessarily. While controversy still surrounds the issue, many studies show that money can indeed buy happiness (though there are some complications and diminishing returns). In general, avoiding the life hardships that result from making only a $15,000 yearly salary by increasing your salary to $75,000 can definitely make you happier, though once you’re comfortable, increasing your salary again to $10 million will not benefit you as much.
Furthermore, happiness comes in many forms, and eminent psychologist Martin Seligman argues in his book Authentic Happiness that there are three types of happy lives: the Pleasant Life — one filled with good cheer and tasty sandwiches; the Good Life — one in which a person custom-tailors his life to match his strengths; and the Meaningful Life — one in which a person uses his strengths in service of something great. While Seligman believes that the Pleasant Life can be difficult for some to attain due to many people’s genetic tendency toward anxiety (natural selection favors anxiety because it provokes people to take action in solving problems), he believes that the Good Life and Meaningful Life are not necessarily subject to those genetic constraints. In other words, if I spend less time worrying about when I’m going to get my next an Italian Grinder and more time using my diverse skill-set to immerse myself in the creation of an Italian Grinder empire, serving the entire world with savory delights, I’ll end up happier.
Ugh. I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy a sandwich after a long hike ever again.
Then again, half the fun is getting there.