A colleague of mine recently returned from an interstate holiday with her young family. They’d all been looking forward to it for a very long time. ‘How was it?’ I asked. As someone who hasn’t been on a vacation for over three-and-a-half years, my question was filled with the kind of marvel reserved for someone who might have returned from Mars. It was amazing, she whispered.
The weather was perfect, she recounted. Also, the children vomited. But at separate times. The pool was spectacular. One kid refused to sleep in the same room as the other one for fear of germs. We saw the reef! My partner fell ill towards the end and took to bed. The food was delicious. Also, flights were cancelled. It was, she concluded, genuinely wonderful.
I believed her.
Mostly because her holiday story mirrored almost all the stories of anyone I know who’s travelled anywhere this year. Whether they pitched a tent an hour away, crossed the border (gasp), or stamped a miraculously valid passport they’d dug out of a bottom drawer, they’ve all recounted their break with breathless wonder, only to then reveal a series of disastrous events that were peppered throughout the adventure that didn’t seem to make a dent.
In two sleeps my own family will be chasing that happiness hit by going on our first proper long break in forever. Well, it’s eight days, but still. Longer than a weekend, more than a mini break. Far North Queensland or bust.
Informed by everyone else’s recent experiences, we’re approaching departure with a mix of fear, trepidation and extremely rock-bottom expectations.
Knowing what we do about rain predictions, persistent Covid rates, the odds of lost luggage, the rate of cancelled flights and the price of petrol, if we manage to cop only a little bit of La Niña, taste a sugar banana, and avoid being bitten by a crocodile and/or Covid, we’ll be punching the air in triumph.
As we all begin to step into the world again, the way we prepare for a holiday reveals something about the way we’re approaching the act of anticipating anything at all.
Our expectations across the board have been dampened down from Great to – at best – Fair to Middling.
It’s not that people aren’t eager to get on with life. In travel terms, international arrivals reached 57% of pre-pandemic levels in the first seven months of 2022. In Australia, 5.1 million passengers were carried on domestic commercial aviation in July 2022, compared to 5.7 million before Covid in July 2019.
But even as we all treat ourselves to the prospect of a change of scene, we’re not quite ready to get excited about it. Strings of cancellations in 2022 due to sickness or perpetually rubbish weather have cemented our natural response to cocoon ourselves from potential disappointment by not banking on things like birthday parties, meeting new babies in person or picturing ourselves on an unblemished beach.
So what are the effects of not indulging in anticipation and deliberately diminishing our expectations? Is it a failure of imagination or an entirely reasonable way to approach these stupid times?
Holidays have always come with baggage. The authors of a 1997 US study entitled Temporal Adjustments in the Evaluation of Events examined people’s anticipation of, experiences in, and recollections of three meaningful life events – a trip to Europe, a Thanksgiving vacation and (the oddly specific act of) bicycling in California.
They found that “people’s expectations of personal events are more positive than their actual experience during the event itself”.
Usually the lead-up to a holiday is delicious. The planning of the itinerary, the counting of the sleeps, the list of items to pack, all capped off by the bliss of crafting the perfect out-of-office email.
A study by Cornell University back in 2002 compared the happiness rates of a group of people who were looking forward to a break they’d booked, versus a group of poor sods who had no holiday on the horizon. They found that those who were waiting to go on a holiday experienced less negative feelings and were much happier with their life as a whole, including their family, economic situation and health.
Can we have both? Can we allow ourselves the excitement of looking ahead but still shield ourselves against the inevitable crushing disappointment?
The key to get the most bang for our holiday buck in these uncertain times, or any kind of pleasure-seeking payment, is to dabble in anticipation, but not elevate our expectations too much.
Expectations are almost always the result of what Buddhism calls the “wanting mind”. The secret is to appreciate the difference between expectations and possibilities. Expectations assume a certain result and are future-based. Possibilities, on the other hand, are based in the present moment. You live as fully as you can in that moment, but you don’t assume that the future will come to pass, because, to state the obvious but acutely relevant fact these days, it’s unknown.
No matter the times, as far as life events go, holidays will always be a heady mix of heightened emotions, bookended by inflated anticipation, dashed expectations and crystallised memories. They stand outside the blur of everyday life like no other life moments; they are our most photographed occasions, at our most tanned, our smiliest, our most relaxed.
My most iconic family holiday moment can be found frozen in Volume 8 of my parents’ photo albums. I am eight years old and we are at DreamWorld on the Gold Coast.
I am clinging tightly to the paw of Dreamworld mascot Kenny the Koala. My little sister, holds my other hand. We are both beaming. Even now, an unmentionably large amount of years later, looking at that photo releases a rush of uncomplicated, pure, family holiday happiness.
It is a postcard from our best selves.
Except of course, it’s not.
The same US authors who studied those hopeful travellers’ anticipation of their trips also reported on their subsequent recollections. They were “more positive than the actual experience”.
Studying that yellowing Kodak photo more closely, I remember the scissoring pain of my little sister’s tiny nails embedded into the palm of my left hand. I remember that my smile isn’t a sign of joy. It’s because my mother is hissing at me to let go of Kenny’s paw as I refuse to let my little sister have a turn of holding the stuffed mascot’s mitt.
Our brains are already wired to remember things in a rosier fashion. In the past we may have airbrushed over the vomits, but maybe the last few years of managing expectations has the potential to remake us into tiny Buddhas, to embrace the disasters, or at least take them in our stride.
It’s entirely possible that our low-grade expectations hint at a healthier dose of perspective, a dialled down sense of entitlement and – just maybe – genuine gratitude.