In his blog The Quest for a Good Life, psychologist Andy Tix recently wrote about his reasons for taking a teaching sabbatical this semester in Scotland.  In brief, he and his wife want to jointly experience the sort of growth that can come about living in an unfamiliar place and interacting with people different from those they usually encounter.  He notes that resettling his family in Edinburg for the duration has been fraught with challenges.  In this regard, he cites Rob Bell’s most recent book Drops Like Stars.  He indicates that Bell suggests “discomfort and suffering often lead to raw experiences that often make life most meaningful and which often bond people together.”  Andy reflects that many people yearn for new and challenging experiences, but shy away from actually taking on challenges because they anticipate hardship and uncertainty. 

I admit that I’m much more prone to daydream about seeking out new challenges than in taking them on.   I do seek out some adventures, but admittedly they are fairly tame.  Andy is spending time in a different cultural setting than he is used to; I like to travel as well, but so far have made only brief trips mostly to destinations where the cultural heritage is not entirely dissimilar to mine.  I notice that even my timid venturing forth is more than some people do.  Last summer, I went on my first cruise, sailing to Italy, Greece, and Turkey with my son, who had been a cruise line employee the previous two summers, thereby making us eligible for a hugely discounted fare. I was struck by how many of the passengers avoided cultural dissonance, seeking out only the picture-postcard sort of experiences that they could assimilate into their already-existing cultural frame.   Riding into Athens inside a well-appointed, air-conditioned coach and getting out at the Acropolis to click a few pictures of the Parthenon may have been travel in the physical sense, but psychically the cruisers weren’t traveling at all, at least not if travel entails leaving the familiar behind  and venturing into the unknown.    To Piaget’s terms, journeys always put the traveler in a place where it’s impossible to assimilate the people and places being experienced into preexisting schemas.  The traveler is forced to accommodate—to create new categories or modify existing ones. 

In describing how his sojourn in Scotland has been affecting him, Andy cited Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between happiness in the moment and the general perception that one has a happy life.  His day-to-day experience of Scotland hasn’t produced many happy moments; in fact, the adjustment had been rather difficult.  However, he has been living in such a way that his conception of the world is changing—the vessels into which his days in Scotland have been poured aren’t adequate to the task, and as a result are being replaced by new, more capacious containers.  New wine has a way of demanding new wineskins.  Does this constitute happiness in the larger sense?  I think it fits best with the Aristotelian concept of happiness as eudiamonia (a life well-lived and suitable to our natural function).  At least in my case, there is more of a sense that I’m living well and wisely when new experiences are trampling on my preconceptions than when I am just pacing within the narrow parameters of the quotidian.