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Why my annual summer trip to Kansas City makes me so happy.

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:15pm

We’re in Kansas City now, visiting my parents. I look forward to this week all summer long.

One of the most striking things I’ve found in my study of happiness is the importance of novelty and challenge. As much as we try to keep control, achieve mastery, and maintain predictability in our lives, in fact, novelty and challenge are keys to happiness. This was hard for me to accept, at first, because I have such great love of routine and also dislike feeling incompetent. But I’ve really found it to be true.

At the same time, the very great joy in doing things the same way -- whether day after day (coffee and the paper in the same spot every day) or year after year (the same unfaltering holiday routine every year) -- should also be recognized.

One of the things that I love about this yearly summer trip to Kansas City is that we always do exactly the same things. We go to the library, Worlds of Fun amusement park, Kaleidescope, a movie at Ward Parkway, the “sprayground.” We feed the ducks at Loose Park. We eat at Winstead’s and go out for BBQ. I eat huge quantities of my favorite nonfat Belfonte yoghurt that I can’t get in New York City. We buy books at the best bookstore ever, Rainy Day Books.

The very predictability heightens the pleasure of these activities. It’s also fun to see, each year, how the girls are able to do different things – in early years, the Big Girl was too afraid to get on the rides in Camp Snoopy at the amusement park, and years later, she rode on the super-scary rollercoaster.

These activities are routine and familiar -- though of course it’s true they’re also novel in that we can’t do them in New York City. They are rare treats that we can only enjoy here.

As pleasant as they are, one issue with predictable pleasures is that they run together. Every visit to Winstead’s blends with all the others…the many trips to the blue playground can’t be distinguished in memory.

Funnily enough – and I find this very comforting to remember – one of the Secrets of Adulthood is “The things that go WRONG often make the best memories.” One of the highlights of the Big Girl’s young childhood is the day she fell into the duck pond and scraped her leg. One of my most vivid memories of the Little Girl’s babyhood is the morning at Worlds of Fun when I called the medical team because I thought she might be going into shock after a bee sting. (Turned out a bug flew into her eye.)

Because of the “negativity bias,” negative events and thoughts are more vivid and memorable than positive ones, which is unfortunate – but fortunately, many minor negative events can become adventures that will be remembered fondly, once they’re safely in the past.

One of my resolutions is to “Be a treasure house of happy memories” for my family. My one-sentence journal is useful for this purpose – I write down funny things that happen – the things that we might forget after a week or two, but which are fun to recall if I’ve written them down. I also take photos, which job my memory of specific days. That way, I remember the funny and happy times as vividly as the negative events, and I’m able to recall the tiny details that get forgotten with the passage of time.

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Alex Fayle of the terrific blog, The Someday Syndrome was kind enough to do an interview with me. We're interested in so many of the same issues, and there is so much fascinating, provocative material on that blog.

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