Sunday, January 6, 2013

How to Enjoy Yourself: The Danger of "Experiences"

If you’re looking for a good time, there’s a strong chance you’re missing out. Are you on a road trip? It’s likely there’s a beautiful moonrise behind your car that you’re not noticing. The most romantic rest stop was eight miles ago. You probably just passed a small clearing in the woods that houses the secret tomb of John Wilkes Booth.

But that’s all okay. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, and even if you’re not, you’re doing okay.

I write this to argue against an attitude to leisure that’s as common as it is tempting and poisonous. According to it, enjoyment comes in packets that must be swallowed whenever they’re available. The quality of our lives is enhanced by the number of good experiences that we accumulate, and a life well-lived is one that ends with an ample collection of remembered pleasures.

There are many behaviors that can only be justified under that understanding of fun: take large weddings, for instance. The main function of a wedding is simple, and I need not elaborate on it. But many a couple has insisted that a wedding be a perfect day, and accordingly procured dead flowers, solemn violinists, and buckets of mousse to make it so. It’s as if there were an invisible judge in heaven who nodded his head in approval at the end of every perfect wedding. (Even if there were, why would we care?)

Take also photo-collecting. It makes sense to take photos if your only intention is to prod your memory later about the trip. It doesn’t make sense to swallow experiences down the gullet of your camera as if they’re more valuable on an LCD screen than in real life.

In fact, we shouldn’t consider experiences valuable in real life either, for experiences aren’t inherently worth anything at all. They might be fun—that’s great! They might be emotionally moving—that might be great! But don’t be seduced by the illusion that an experience is inherently worth anything more than the pleasure it gives you in the moment. Nor is it worth anything to anyone but you.

Readers fall into the same trap. Many people’s reading habits seem to be based on the assumption that they’re going to be held to account for the number of complete books that they’ve read. But books are not trophies to be put on a shelf: they’re arguments to be followed or worlds to be explored. (Most people forget what they read, anyway. Even if we remembered every word, though, what would be the point? How would it make us happy?)

I therefore propose a new method for enjoying ourselves. We should take pleasure in what’s in front of us. We should enjoy the company of the people we’re with. We should do things spontaneously if they seem like fun to us.

But we shouldn’t do things for the sake of the “experience”. Still less should we do them to tell other people about them. And it might make things better to leave your camera behind, or to tear out Chapter  XLIII without even looking at it to prevent yourself from finishing the book.


Anonymous said...

Most of the time your posts make me shake my head in sadness or anger. This time, however, I find myself agreeing with what you have to say -- but I also think that there is little good in judging people or telling them how to live. So while I agree with what your point is, overall, I think you perhaps misinterpret the packeted actions that people take.

Anonymous said...

On an unrelated note, I am curious to hear your response to this article:

Jonathan Katz said...

Interesting. I like the comment about photo-collecting - while I myself (a rather obsessive food photographer) sometimes fall into the trap you mention, I try to get myself to take "useful" photos (e.g. for dishes I'd like to recreate).

Although sometimes people actually do *enjoy* the packets - it's a received ideal of enjoyment.

Anonymous said...

"But don't be seduced by the illusion that an experience is inherently worth anything more than the pleasure it gives you in the moment. Nor is it worth anything to anyone but you."

But experience is a kind of cultural capital. We attribute lasting value to particular kinds of experiences monetarily in the job market, socially in storytelling and status distinction, and personally in refining our actions based on lessons learned. As social beings, we create and strengthen bonds through shared experiences (both in the storytelling sense and the sense of doing things together). We seek out people with experiences similar to ours for community, and people with experiences different from ours for learning.

Doesn't this suggest an inherent worth of experience beyond contemporaneous enjoyment? Is the answer different if the experience comes from a lab, a classroom, a book, a walk in the woods, or a social gathering? Does the collector of experiences increase his or her potential value to society by having more to share?