The Liberation of Use-Them-Or-Lose-Them Frequent Flyer Miles

This year, Daniel Kahneman has me wondering about what is the best way to organize my vacation time.  In this great TED talk – The Riddle of Experience versus Memory, he talks about the tradeoffs we must make in increasing our moment-to-moment experience of happiness versus increasing our memories of happiness.

If you want to maximize your memories of happiness, you should spend more time taking pictures of your vacation and jam more events into each day. If you want to maximize your moment-to-moment experience of happiness, you spend less time recording your experience and more time experiencing them directly.

Earlier this summer, I traveled to the UP, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, vacationing as I do every year with my family. When I’m in the UP, my daily activities are biased toward experiential happiness (which at least for me is enhanced by lingering repetition of the familiar –lake swims, family sing-along to Rise Up Singing, and trips to the dunes at Grand Marais for the umpteenth time).

But a few weeks ago, I went on a very different “more is more” vacation. Early in August, I received a robo call out of the blue from United Airlines warning me that a substantial number of my frequent flyer miles were going to expire if I didn’t use them.

I sprang into action, and found myself splurging on things I never would have been willing to pay for. My spouse and I stayed for the first time at the Plaza in New York, and were scheduled to stay at the Waldorf Astoria the night Irene hit the fair metropolis.

Photo: Boobooo

But I consumed most of our miles on a spur of the moment bike trip to the Amalfi coast with my 14-year old daughter, Anna. With the heroic assistance of Jerry de Concilio at That’s Amore Bike Rental & Cycling Holidays, we rented a tandem bike and explored the Sorrentine Peninsula. Unlike my sojourns in the UP, this vacation was organized much more to maximize memories of happiness. In what turned out to be our big biking day, Anna and I peddled from Naples to Pompei.  The next day Jerry personally led us on a “Path of the Gods” hike that included some of most beautiful coastal views I’ve ever seen, but also wore me out. Anna and I weren’t maximizing moment-to-moment joy. But already I have very dear memories of the trip (which included daddy school study of pre-calculus, along with some successful dress shopping).

If it weren’t for my expiring miles, I would never have experienced any of it. Suddenly I think there might be a new kind of value in wasting assets. The wasting and dedicated-use qualities can serve as commitments to splurge on kinds of consumption that you’d like to do but feel constrained not to.

Striking the Right Balance

Stepping back, the Kahneman dichotomy between experiential and memory happiness has a lot more to say to us than how much time on vacation you should devote to taking pictures (to enhance later memories).  The tradeoff between these two broad categories is also at play in David Brooks‘s insight about what we admire most in others:

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

The things we do that are “arduous and miserable” are what make us most proud of ourselves.

Kahneman’s modest goal in his talk is to recommend that we make more conscious choices about what mixtures of happiness we want to pursue.  Through his lens, we can see that Tiger parents pursue a kind of happiness for themselves and their children that is skewed highly away from moment-to-moment joy. De Gustibus. But I personally find that a life wholly lacking in the pursuit of either form of happiness is less worth living.

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  1. Shane says:

    Interesting stuff and good points. Perhaps perversely, I’m reminded of a documentary I recently saw about British football hooligans. These young men would travel on horrible old trains – toilets clogged, heating malfunctioning, windows broken – to attend their team’s away matches in some other British city. Once there they would engage in a drunken rampage against the local team’s hooligans in a massive recreational fight. They risked quite serious injury in these places, as well as arrest.

    But some former hooligans explained that the train ride home, having survived battles with the rival firms, was fantastic. This kind of drunken tribalism brought them together and gave them wild stories they held in common. So perhaps that, too, is an odd kind of ‘memory happiness’: deliberately seeking chaotic danger and surviving to reminisce.

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  2. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Whilst in Bahias de Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, Club Med, I heard a guy propose regarding vacations: “Life is too short to go the same place twice.” Although I can’t say I follow the rule, I wish I had. The wisdom of his advice is beautiful.

    Regarding frequent-flyer miles. This has become as corrupt a scheme as anyone has ever invented. At a company I worked for the sales and marketing people spent all their time trying to accumulate more. It was typical that a short meeting jaunt would be followed by a return trip landing at 10-15 airports on the return, and employing every sort of scam to make more miles.

    The CO2 that this travel caused melted the arctic icecap.

    Regarding happiness: Meditate.

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    • Mike says:

      So does this mean people with better memories are more likely to seek out moment-to-moment happiness because they don’t need the tangible reminders of their experiences that others might?

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    • James says:

      ““Life is too short to go the same place twice.” Although I can’t say I follow the rule, I wish I had. The wisdom of his advice is beautiful.”

      Seems pretty shallow to me. After all, if we extended it to other areas of life, we’d have nothing but one night stands and short acquaintances.

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      • Eric M. Jones says:

        I don’t think the advice applies to everything.

        But the tendency to repeat a pleasant vacation is very common and comfortable, but it avoids experiencing the variety and vast beauty of the world.

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      • James says:

        But merely going someplace for a vacation is a very shallow and (to my way of thinking, anyway) unsatisfactory way of experiencing the world, taken to ridiculous extremes by the sort of guided tour that promises twelve countries in ten days. I’d rather stay for a longer time (or return several times) and get better acquainted.

        Another benefit of this is that it somewhat reduces the unpleasantness associated with getting to whatever place you’re going, because you’ve at least learned how to get around. But of course that is part of the paradox of travel in our times: the unhappiness created by the process of getting there & back (at least by conventional means) outweighs the happiness created in the length of a conventional vacation – even when you don’t discover that the place you’ve gone to has McDonalds and Muzak, just like back home.

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      • Eric M. Jones says:

        James,

        I definitely agree.

        If one traveled around the world staying at first class hotels, one might as well stay home. And a one-week vacation is not long enough to be worth it. I would like the two-week minimum stay, then stay off the tourist routes and out of the tee-shirt shops.

        Club Med tried to do this. The built resorts in out-of-the-way places where one could have a real experience. But soon time-shares and cheap vacation hotels filled by cheap jet-travel followed, sometime simply on the rumor that Club Med was coming. Cancun was a Club Med “discovery”. as was Phuket, Thailand, and essentially the whole “Mexican Riviera” There are many others.

        So getting off the beaten path is critical. But travel discounts beckon one to glitzy places. My advice: Take the discount and rent a car. Go the Las Vegas, grab a meal, a show, a shower, a night’s sleep, rent a car and head to Death Valley, Sequoia, Yosemite, Bode, Owens Valley and all compass directions. Return and fly home.

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  3. Mike B says:

    I take vacations for the express purpose of taking pictures/videos of things so I can later publish the content online. Therefore I have managed to combine both types of happiness along with “work” into a nice tight little ball.

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  4. AndrewB says:

    But I have fun taking pictures during vacations so how does that fit in with the hypothesis?

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  5. Rafael Prieto says:

    Reminds me of “deferred gratification”.

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  6. Brian Salerni says:

    An example of wasting assets that I ran into was on June 16, 2011 – the last day Verizon wireless offered an unlimited data package.

    I found the dynamic of purchasing a new phone extremely different to that of my past phone purchases. Previous phone purchases focused more on the phones capabilities and new technology. This time around the phone was not what I was worried about; as long as it was a Droid (sorry Apple enthusiasts) and it had 4g, I was sold.

    To be perfectly honest, there are few purchases in my life that made me happier. It was not the quickest amount of time I have ever spent in a Verizon store, and on top of that they didn’t even ask me if I wanted to buy a warranty (they simply added it). All in all it came down to how I, the consumer, felt about taking advantage of the soon to be limited resource, unlimited data.

    I guess the old adage is true: People want to buy, but don’t want to be sold!

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