You’ve just ordered a top sirloin at a five star restaurant and the waiter brings you prime rib. Or you arrive on time for your reservation and still have to wait 20 minutes to get a table. Or you ask for a beer with your dinner and, after you’ve reminded the waiter twice, he informs you as you’re finishing off your entree that the restaurant is out of your selection.
Do you complain to the manager, or do you wax philosophic and chalk up the experience to the vagaries of life?
It may depend on whether you are dining cross-country or dining across town.
That’s what researchers from Temple University, Arizona State University, and the University of Minnesota concluded when they studied a cross-section of restaurant reviews: we’re more likely to be critical of establishments when we’re closer to home than we are when we’re on the road.
The question, of course, is why?
According to NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, it may be that we acquire an entirely different outlook when we travel. It’s not only that we expect the unexpected; we may actually welcome it as part of the novelty that makes us want to travel in the first place.
Conversely, our higher standards at home derive from the familiarity of our surroundings and our subconscious prediction that the future will conform to what we’ve experienced in the past. We are less receptive to variation when we’re on home turf, since we think we know what’s coming, whereas the spirit of adventure we feel on the road makes us more flexible and adaptable, more able to focus on what we like and filter out anything that doesn’t go our way.
REWRITING OUR PASTS
Another possible explanation is that we want to romanticize our adventures. If we’ve traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, we don’t want to think of our trip as wasted or ill-spent, so we subconsciously augment our experiences in order to remember them as having been worth the trouble and the cost. Closer to home, we want to learn from our mistakes so that we won’t repeat them; therefore, the negatives may stand out and overshadow the good.
All of which may provide us with an insight that extends far beyond going out to eat.
Consider the buzz that surrounds visiting speakers, visiting bands, visiting theater groups, and visiting comics. If a celebrity arrives from out of town, how much more excitement is generated than we find by any local personality?
Certainly, there’s no guarantee that the out-of-towner will prove more engaging or enthralling than someone homegrown. But the buzz of excitement stems from the transience of the opportunity. This is something new. This is something out of the ordinary. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Will it live up to the buzz? Our subconscious minds are determined to make sure that it will.
That can be a good thing. We enjoy our experiences more because we’re more invested in having them turn out well. Our anticipation is heightened before and we retain more pleasant memories after, improving our moods and increasing our feelings of joy and satisfaction.
CREATING THE WINTERS OF OUR DISCONTENT
But then there’s the flip side. And since most of life is routine, it’s oh-so-easy to allow dark clouds to gather over our disposition and color everything in our lives with dreary shades of gray.
We get bored with our jobs, with our clothes, with our cars, with our homes. We grow indifferent towards our spouses and resentful of their imperfections, until our eyes begin to wander and our minds begin wonder if we wouldn’t be happier with someone or something else. We become frustrated with our kids and wish they would stop demanding so much of the time and energy that we want to invest in living our lives.
The sad truth is that we end up missing out on our lives because we don’t recognize the novelty of each new day, we don’t appreciate the value of the predictable, we don’t cherish the gift of the ordinary. When we can’t escape to faraway places, we escape into the fantasy of movies and television, of video games and romantic novels. We trade the solid satisfaction of the real for the whimsical dreams of our imagination.
In the worst scenarios, we trade reality for fantasy and end up left with nothing at all.
So how do we keep the familiar from becoming contemptible? How do we bring a sense of newness and freshness into our humdrum lives?
STOP AND SEE THE DAISIES
Back in the fifties, a rabbinic scholar took his first trip on a jet plane. Outside the cabin window, he beheld the curvature of the earth, the clouds and the sea, and the sunrise blazing over the horizon from the darkness of the heavens. When he returned home, he told his rabbi how inspired he had been, and how he felt he had come face to face with the Divine Presence.
“I know just what you mean,” his rabbi replied. “I feel exactly the same way every time I see a daisy.”
Sure, there are plenty of ways we can spice up the ordinary. Candlelit dinners, moonlight walks in the park, drives in the countryside, family get-togethers, and spontaneous little adventures.
But we make a mistake when we value the extraordinary over the ordinary. True, gravy makes the turkey taste better, icing sweetens the cake, and a gleaming paint job fills us with pleasure as we get into the car. But would we ever want gravy without the turkey or icing without the cake? And how much pleasure do we find in the polished paint job when the engine won’t turn over? We get so caught up in the extras that we forget about what really gives substance and meaning to our existence.
The best way to keep our lives fresh is not by changing our lives but by changing the way we look at the events that fill our lives. To spend a few moments each morning and evening giving thanks for our husbands, wives, children, parents, families, and friends; to recount the blessings of good health, a job, food on our table, a roof over our heads; to reflect upon our modest but meaningful accomplishments and to take pleasure in the little ways we contribute to our world and make it a better place, even as we look ahead toward greater accomplishments and the legacy we hope to leave behind.
Life isn’t meant to be a party. It’s meant to be something better, something that lasts, something that continues to fill us with joy when the parties are all over, after the fireworks are finished, once we’ve paid the check for dinner and return to the routine we share with the people we love.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and radio personality, is a former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist who lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri. His new book is Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, a marriage of King Solomon’s proverbs with the mysterious beauty of the Mona Lisa in a lyrical medley of the human experience.