462: Vacation Memories

What trip or vacation do you remember most?

Full episode script

As we’ve talked about before, memory is a bit more flexible than a direct recall system. In situations where we take ourselves out of our normal everyday, the impact on memory can be especially interesting.

In 2005, in the Journal of Psychological Science, Richard Hebert wrote:

APS Fellow Derrick Wirtz, along with Diener and others at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found the same among 46 students on spring break: Their predicted and remembered experiences were both more positive and, paradoxically, more negative than the experiences themselves.

Why? In addition to memory’s inability to evoke past pain and other emotions, during vacations “people face a barrage of minor distractions, neither anticipated or remembered, that dilute the experience of enjoyment,” Mitchell reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “People [also] felt less in control … [and] saw themselves less positively during the event than they either anticipated or remembered.”

The thing is, what we do during vacation and what we remember about our vacation are sometimes two very different things. As Chris Weller wrote in Business Insider:

If you want to maximize the happiness of your experiencing self, plan a lengthy vacation. An extra week of sipping cocktails in the sun will almost certainly keep your stress levels lower than hunching over your keyboard at work.

But if you want to maximize the happiness of your remembering self — mind you, a self that lasts far longer than the fleeting experiencing self — a lengthy vacation makes far less sense.

Quoting again from the Journal of Psychological Science:

“Vacations are doomed to never measure up. In retrospect, fortunately, our minds play games with us, and they reassemble themselves often into something that is pretty close to what we expected. [Later] people remember the highs and lows, but the main thing they really remember is meaning. ‘That was the trip on which I met my wife.’ ‘That was the trip on which I almost drowned.’”

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.