An analysis of traveling: diminishing marginal returns or cognitive dissonance?

What makes a trip successful? Is it the fantastic sights seen, the friends made, the food consumed?  Or is it the mountains climbed, the challenges conquered, the definition of oneself in the midst of the unknown?

Could living in a place like this ever bore you?

I ask these questions not because I have an answer, but because I have experienced a certain disappointment in my travels this time around, which I mentioned earlier, and which still baffles me. My time in London and Edinburgh was phenomenal, and Switzerland is as lovely as ever, so why am I disappointed?

My first international experience was the absolute opposite; despite my horrific journey, I experienced highs higher than I knew existed. I felt like I was upside down half the time, and was baffled by everything around me, from the different languages, accents, and food, to the method of hand-drying. Despite the fact that I was utterly solo, had not a friend to my name on the continent, I never felt alone, fell tragically in love, and made friends in every hostel and city I visited. Now, now that I know all of those I am working with and am only staying with friends, I feel more isolated than ever. Is this simply the result of 20/20 hindsight? Am I seeing the perfections of my first trip, when at the time I felt the sweat of the Milan heat and the blisters from lugging my bag from hostel to hostel? Or, do I simply feel complacent, and disappointed in myself that I am so within my comfort zone?

This brings me to one of my favorite theories in economics: the idea of diminishing marginal returns. Basically, once supply and demand meet, demand falls off. This is because you get fewer returns per extra unit consumed once you pass a certain threshold (on a graph, that point where price demanded meets quantity demanded). This makes sense; while eating, for instance, the pleasure you get per bite decreases dramatically once you are already satisfied. But, does this theory apply to traveling? Do we get bored once we have already seen something of the world? Does the wonder ever cease?

I think that, perhaps, it does, though I am not saying that you should only ever travel once and then become housebound. Yes, the Alps are just as beautiful as they were my first time here, but I come with the expectation of being awed, because I have been. My first time here, I had no expectations, and so was struck as by a tidal wave with the beauty surrounding me. If I come with those expectations, the impact will, naturally, be less.

A competing theory comes from psychology: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance essentially says that we look back on something, and if the outcome doesn’t match our expectations, we feel discomfort- embarrassment, shame, regret—and therefore change the way we feel about it, or our expectations, in order to reduce those feelings. One example from a psych class I took said that students were more likely to say that they liked a class after they had enrolled in it and began it than beforehand, because they don’t like the idea that they are wasting their precious time or that they guessed wrong when registering for the course. Essentially, pride.

So, my question is this—was my first trip really the incredible experience that I remembered it being, (was I perhaps suffering from cognitive dissonance that attempted to make up for my horrific voyage?) or do we experience diminishing marginal returns while traveling? Truthfully, I would really hate it if I needed a bigger and bigger adrenaline rush every time I went somewhere new. I want to experience awe and wonder the same way I did that first time that I crossed the Atlantic, but if I need to experience something comparatively incredible, I’m going to have to find Mt. Olympus by the time I’m 30.

My answer to both questions is, yes, but not all is lost. I think that I do tend to remember the rosy memories, and to forget the exhaustion that I felt after spending three nights in an airport, and that I made friends because I was desperate and miserable, not because I was surrounded by beautiful, amazing people. I made the experience that I wanted to have. Because of this, I expect every experience to be incredible, and forget the hard work that I put into it to make it incredible.

Thus, I have vowed that I will make this trip just as incredible as that first one. I will push my comfort zones, and I will make new friends, and I will find that adrenaline rush, hopefully all without missing three flights in a row and losing all my luggage. The experience was of my own creation two summers ago, and it will be of my own creation this year, as well.

  1. Izzie said:

    I’d like to point out that I technically live on this continent and you knew me before your first trip too 🙂

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