Amarynth_profile-new.jpgAmarynth Sichel

The bucket lists we compile when leaving a city that we’ve called home hold a unique place in the taxonomy of to-do lists and itineraries. A hybrid between a favorite weekend routine and a vacation agenda, they tend to be a mix of activities we’ve done a thousand times, and those we’ve planned but failed to do a thousand times. 

I found out that I would be leaving Seoul, where I’d lived for two years, several months before my departure, so I had ample time to compile an ambitious bucket list. I wanted to do all the classically "Korean" things I’d never found time for, like cycling Korea’s eastern coastline, visiting Korea’s many islands, and taking cooking classes. However, I also wanted to re-climb my favorite mountains, return to my favorite noodle shop, and re-hike my favorite trekking trails. Predictably, by the time I started checking things off my list, only a handful of weekends remained, so I was forced to choose between creating new memories and reliving old ones. 

This calculus was tricky -- some of the new things I wanted to do provided mediocre immediate experiences, but created lovely memories. For example, ever since I first noticed tourists wandering downtown Seoul in traditional Korean Hanbok dresses, I wanted to rent a set myself and visit the city’s palaces. (Pro tip: If you wear Hanbok to the palaces, you get in for free.) Wearing a big skirt and long-sleeves in Seoul’s stultifying summer heat was a punishing prospect, but for the sake of the memories -- and the photos -- I convinced a friend to sacrifice bodily comfort for an afternoon to traipse around Seoul in the billowing costumes. 

Conversely, some of my bucket list activities were enjoyable, but utterly unremarkable. Going alone for the umpteenth time to my local bouldering gym does not provide a memorable experience. In fact, my visits there are all blurred together. However, I ticked bouldering off my bucket list because the immediate experience was fun. 

As it turns out, founder of behavioral economics and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s theories about happiness and wellbeing explain my bucket list dilemma remarkably well. According to Kahneman, we have two selves: the experiencing and the remembering. The experiencing self is the one that knows how we are from moment to moment. The remembering self synthesizes our experiences to make memories.

I went to the bouldering gym to satisfy my experiencing self, though the commonplace trip gave my remembering self no new material. On the other hand, my Hanbok excursion was purely for my remembering self. My experiencing self did not like sweating through a summer afternoon in layers of silk, but my remembering self still loves looking at the photos.

According to Kahneman’s research, it's the remembering self that decides whether or not we label a particular episode as positive, and the remembering self’s evaluation metrics do not always align with the experiencing self’s. The remembering self is impervious to time, and judges an experience based not on the total sum of every moment of the experience, but rather, based on its peak, or the most intense part, and its end. 

Given the outsized role conclusions play in determining how we recall entire experiences, bucket lists, and in particular the activities further down the list, influence our overall memories of a place. Fortunately, for my final weekend in Korea, I found an adventure that appealed to both my remembering and my experiencing self. I traveled to picturesque Jeju island, where I hiked the ancient volcanic Hallasan Mountain, South Korea’s tallest mountain. My experiencing self relished the long, gradual ascent through the mountain’s shifting mists, and my remembering self got a true peak experience -- the highest South Korea has to offer, in fact -- and still loves reliving it. Having ended on a high, I look forward to returning to Korea, to revisit my favorite haunts, and to tick off the remainder of my bucket list. 

Amarynth Sichel is currently a Gates Scholar at Cambridge University. Previously, she spent two years in Korea, working for Seoul Metropolitan Government, freelancing as an executive coach, and studying Korean.