As my experience with the masters program in positive psychology at Penn nears its conclusion, I thought it might be appropriate to spend my time this month writing about adventure.
The last year certainly has been an adventure, particularly for many of my classmates who took time away from their careers and their families to travel halfway around the world to Philadelphia each month for lectures. I am sure any one of them will tell you that it has not been an easy road and that there were times when they questioned their sanity in the moment they decided to join the program. But now that we are (nearly) finished, we all value this past year as an experience we would not trade for anything.
Why is that?
I started this academic year in the spirit of adventure, hoping that throwing myself into a new challenge, whether it turned out well or not, would make my life more interesting. I was convinced there was something to the notion that experiencing life in its raw forms, both positive and negative, added value to my life. As I entered the world of positive psychology, I kept my ideas mostly to myself and soon realized that perhaps I had been reading too much Jack Kerouac last summer.
Time Categories of Pleasures
Near the end of the fall semester, however, Paul Rozin visited as a guest lecturer and gave one of the most memorable talks I have heard on positive psychology. He was addressing the concept of the temporal frame of pleasure. Essentially, as Rozin argues building upon research by Daniel Kahneman and others, pleasures can be divided into distinct temporal categories as either experienced (or present) pleasure, remembered pleasure, or anticipated pleasure. While we tend to devote many resources towards experienced pleasure, most of the pleasures we feel are of the remembered or anticipatory variety.
For instance, let us assume you are planning a weekend trip to the mountains with the family. Although you will feel experienced pleasure while in the mountains, most of the trip’s positive effects will take the form of great anticipatory pleasure leading up to the weekend and great remembered pleasure as you browse photographs and share stories upon your return. Differences in experienced pleasure and remembered pleasure as a result of our fallible memories are predicted by Kahneman’s peak-end rule and the phenomenon of duration neglect (i.e. the duration of a positive or negative experience has no significant bearing on how positively or negatively the event is rated retrospectively).
A Favorite Subject: Food
Ah, but here’s the rub! Once you have ordered the filet mignon three or four times over a period of months, your memory of each distinct meal becomes blurred. Your remembered pleasure no longer increases by the same amount as it did after the first steak. By meal number ten, remembered pleasure has leveled off and gone to sleep. Since we spend more time with our remembered pleasures, the entire filet mignon experience no longer has much long-term value to gain. Certainly not as much as the pan-seared mahi mahi you have yet to try. You may not like it as much as the filet mignon, but adding a new dish into the mix every once in a while will do wonders for you remembered pleasure. “Remember that one time when I ate turtle meat…”
What About Adventure?
I quickly noticed that the dichotomy of remembered and experienced pleasures could explain the value I saw in adventure, trying new things, and taking chances. Even if things don’t go as well as they could have with a less risky option, adventure always adds value to remembered pleasure.A few weeks ago, I had made plans to run on the university track after a day at work. I wasn’t planning to run far, just a few laps. I walked to the stadium in my shorts and running shoes, minidisc player in hand, only to find the track had closed for the afternoon.
Slightly dismayed and preparing to do my usual routine on the treadmill at the gym, I began walking back to my office and suddenly decided that this might be the perfect opportunity to jog along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia through Fairmount Park. I had wanted to explore the park and river for months, but had not found the time. It was a beautiful May evening and, inspired by the scenery, I ran farther than I should have. My water bottle quickly emptied and I grew overwhelmed by thirst. I developed a bad, throbbing blister on my big toe. I desperately needed to find a restroom. My experienced pleasure was nothing worth telling a story about, but my remembered pleasure of the evening tied to images of the lush greenery, the gardens and sculptures, the rowers on the river is amazing. It soon became a small adventure that highlighted my spring in Philadelphia.
From Routine to Adventure
The everyday routines we develop for ourselves do wonders for reducing our cognitive loads. I require less motivation to run when I have a regular schedule for the treadmill at the gym than if I do not. What if you woke up every morning without any predetermined plan as to how to begin your day (those of you with young children probably understand this better than the rest of us)? But psychology suggests your remembered pleasure may benefit if you deviate from your routine when appropriate. Order the menu item you haven’t tried yet. Drive home the back way even if you don’t know the exact route. Do that thing you’ve always talked about doing someday. It doesn’t take much to adventure a little bit each day.
I suppose all I’m trying to say today is that the pleasure we feel in our lives may not come to us as straightforwardly as we would hope. Sometimes moments that are great in the here and now (like a juicy filet mignon) lose value quickly. And other moments that are less pleasant—and might even cause us to suffer a bit—are often the ones with high long-term dividends.
Invest in your pleasures wisely.
Adventure in your own way. Then tell us all about it.
Rozin, P. (1999). Preadaptation and the puzzles and properties of pleasure. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener and N. Schwartz (eds) (1999). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.3-25). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Kahneman, D., Frederickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4(6), 401-405.
Frederickson, B. L. & Kahneman, D. (1993). Duration neglect in retrospective evaluations of affective episodes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(1), 45-55.
Filet Mignon courtesy of naotakem
Philly Cleanup (In Fairmount Park) courtesy of Peter and Laila