Tag Archives: The New Yorker

Money And Happiness in Adulthood: The Value of Experience

“It’s amazing how many things in life would be better if you just had more money,” a friend of mine once observed. She wasn’t particularly sad when she said it, or even particularly wistful. In her view, it was just another of those life lessons you pick up along the way.

I’ve given her comment a lot of thought over the years because – let’s face it – we all give in to the temptation from time to time to imagine what we’d do if a boatload of money suddenly rained down upon us. In my current life stage, I’m quite certain that I’d purchase some additional childcare to help me with the daily schlep around North London between 3 and 5 p.m. Then there’s always that second home in Southern France I’ve coveted (and maybe another one in Hawaii…hey, why not? Live large.) And as a newly card-carrying member of the biking brigade, I’d sure love some of that fancy schwag that goes with the whole cycling thing.

Despite the apparent perspicacity of my friend’s casual remark – the relationship between money and happiness isn’t quite so straightforward after all. According to an article in The New York Times over the weekend, just getting more stuff doesn’t actually make you any happier. What counts is how you spend your money.

It turns out that spending money on experience-related purchases – the article cites things like concert tickets, French lessons, and sushi-rolling classes — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff. As a scholar interviewed in the article sums it up: “It’s better to go on a vacation than to buy a new couch.”

The article goes on to say that over the past few years, consumers have been gravitating more and more towards experience-rich expenditures. Indeed, one study by Thomas DeLeire of The University of Wisconsin and Ariel Kalil of The University of Chicago showed that the only category of consumption to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles. (Full disclosure: DeLeire and Kalil are both former colleagues.)

While much of that shift has been driven by the global economic downturn, many analysts are predicting that these changes are likely to last. Simply put, people have discovered – albeit by circumstance – that they actually prefer their pared down, leisure-oriented purchases to the more lavish consumption patterns of yore.

Which brings us to the staycation. I wrote last week about the rise of the staycation as a lifestyle choice in advanced, industrial countries like the U.S. and the U.K. But what the Times article is suggesting is that part of the staycation’s appeal is precisely that it gibes so well with leisure- (read happiness) oriented purchases like barbeques and movies and board games that enhance the value of experience over mere acquisition. Particularly over at The Huffington Post – where I also blog – commenters noted that their choice to “staycate” (is that a verb?) was driven less by financial squeeze than it was by the fact that were actually happier just staying home and hanging out doing simple things with their families.

I once wrote a post where I asked readers where they drew the line between what counts as a luxury vs. what counts as a necessity in their daily lives. (The post was occasioned by the acquisition of a new rice cooker in our household.) I confessed that for me, at least, a New Yorker subscription constituted a necessity, even though many would probably term it a luxury. But now that I’ve read this article, I’m thinking that the reason that I continue to value The New Yorker so highly is actually that it brings me so much happiness.

So I’m curious. As you narrow your spending to focus on what counts – (if you are, in fact, doing that) – what sorts of things do you find bring you the most happiness?

Image: I.T barbeque by alliance1911 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Living With Mess: Radical Acceptance

Christina Katz has a great post over on her Prosperous Writer E-zine this week about what she calls “clarity.” She defines clarity as “lucidity…exactness…simplicity.”

It’s about figuring out what you need and what you want as a writer and paring down your obligations and responsibilities so that you can really zero in on what’s important. (Note: you must subscribe to her free e-zine to read this post, which I heartily recommend.)

This is great advice for both writing and life, and something I continually have to remind myself to do when I start feeling overwhelmed. “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity,” as the man said.

The problem is that isn’t always that…well…simple. Sometimes you can’t achieve clarity because there are too many loose ends in your life and you have to accept that some of these just aren’t going to get tied up in short order.

Which is where I’m at right now with – oh – just about everything in my life. You see, I’ve just moved house. So everywhere I look I see unopened boxes.

There are the real boxes, those last stubborn few that simply refuse to empty themselves because – if you cared to tackle them – they’d require you to scratch your head and say: Now where does that plug go? Which cannister is that the top to? And why, again, did we decide to save that yarmulke from that bar mitzvah five years ago?

Then there are the metaphorical boxes:  The stack of New Yorkers that lie unread. The emails that began to pile up the day of the move and some of which sit still – unopened – in the dark recesses of my inbox. Those last few changes of address that haven’t yet happened because it turns out that you actually need to call the pension fund in the U.S. where you still have some pocket of retirement savings during (its) business hours because they can’t process an overseas address on-line.

And then there are all those technological boxes that can’t be opened because this is the U.K. where the customer comes last. So the internet provider lost track of your account and now you have to wait another 10 days for them to come to your neighborhood to set it up. Or the bank forgot to update your address so your credit card keeps getting rejected. Or – my personal favorite – the satellite dish for the TV can’t be installed because you live on the third floor and their ladders don’t go that high. (Um…no offense, but isn’t this what you do for a living?)

It drives me insane, all this mess. Because I hate things that are un-finished. I’m the lady who sometimes adds things to my to-do list *after* I’ve done them just to feel the satisfaction of crossing them off, remember?

So I’ve been feeling really unsettled lately. (It didn’t help that for the first five days of my move the U.K. didn’t have a government. I was like “C’mon, guys! Just make up your minds, would ya?“)

And then, something weird happened. Yesterday night was my monthly book group meeting. And, on top of everything, I hadn’t finished the book. This has never happened to me before. I’m one of those hard-core, unsympathetic book group types who *always* finishes the book. But this time, I just couldn’t.

But because I love my book club, I went anyway. Even though I hadn’t finished and felt wretched about that. (It helps that we were reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s marvelous Half of A Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. Speaking of learning how to live with mess…)

And you know what? It felt OK to be there, even half-read. Because it was the best I could do.

My life coach has a great phrase for moments like this. She calls it “radical acceptance.” It’s for situations where things are exactly how you’d like them *not* to be  – where you can’t, yet, achieve “clarity.”

So you force yourself to extend the parameters of what you’d normally find acceptable. And you decide to  just roll with it. Because you know that you are on the road to clarity.

And that’s O.K.

Radical Acceptance.

Image: Unopened Boxes by CDaisyM via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you to some worthwhile reading around the blogosphere:

1. Here’s a really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about why the “aging” of scientific research grants may impede creativity.

2. And while we’re on the topic of aging – according to the Los Angeles Times – the Tea Partiers are just a bunch of baby boomers longing for the 60s. Who knew?

3. I absolutely adored this homage to The New Yorker over on A Boat Against The Current. Who amongst us didn’t dream of the day the New Yorker would call? (Who am I kidding? Who amongst us *still* doesn’t dream…)

4. I’m now a regular over at Roger Ebert’s Journal on the SunTimes. Here’s a recent post he did on a visit to London (with many ref’s to my very own ‘hood.) It’s about writing…and walking…and, well, writing and walking. Fabulous.

5. If you’re into libraries, have a look at this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about Joyce Carol Oates’ abiding love of libraries. While you’re at it, here’s an interview in Salon with Marilyn Johnson, the author of a new book on librarians entitled This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.

6. Finally, a dispatch from Fast Company on why it’s actually more productive to nap. Hallelujah!

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Sabbath Saturday: Five Things I Gained From Taking Saturdays Off

A month ago, I committed myself to testing out a new personal resolution: I would no longer work on Saturdays.

I defined work quite broadly for this purpose. It encompassed anything electronic (e.g. email, Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds) as well as conducting interviews and, of course, writing. And because I’m more of an abstainer than a moderator, I gave these things up for the entire day, not just for a few hours.

I promised that after one month, I’d touch base to let you know how my attempt to celebrate a secular sabbath was going and whether I thought it was really doable. And I’m pleased to report that it was not only doable, it also gave me a huge happiness boost, in ways that I both did and did not expect.

That’s not to say it was easy. There was not a Saturday that I wasn’t tempted to do at least a bit of work. But there also wasn’t a Saturday that I wasn’t glad that I had decided not to.

So here are five things I gained from taking Saturdays off:

1. I relaxed. My main goal in taking Saturdays off was to bring a few of my favorite things (cue Julie Andrews) back into my life: specifically, reading The New Yorker and going to yoga. Of those two – and somewhat surprisingly – yoga ended up getting relatively more air time than did The New Yorker (which is only surprising because I don’t need to leave the house to read The New Yorker.) But I think something about assigning myself Saturday as “yoga day” motivated me to go down to the yoga studio and sign up for a 10-class pass. And once I did that, going to yoga was not just pleasurable…but automatic. And now it’s part of my (new and improved!) Saturday routine.

2. I was more focused with my children. If you’ve ever attended a parenting seminar, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that if you really want to have quality time with your kids, you need to stop multi-tasking. Back when I worked full-time – in an office – I was actually pretty good about switching off work when I was with the kids. Once I became a part-time, work-from-home parent, however, all that went right out the window. But in the last month or so, I’ve actually sat down and focused on my kids for hours at a clip without feeling the need to simultaneously (fill in the blank): do dishes/check my email/scan the newspaper/etc. One day, my son and I actually took out the chemistry set that he’d gotten for Hanukkah – (which, to be honest, I’d sort of filed away mentally under “great educational gift that will probably never see the light of day” ) – and – gasp – used it. And the more I focused on the kids and didn’t try to get 12 other things done simultaneously – the more relaxed I was with them.

3. I re-connected with old friends. One of the big changes that has come with taking Saturdays off is that I’m now back in touch with old friends. Close female friendships are a big predictor of long-term survival and success. Back when I was still living in the States, I used to call my friends during my daily 45 minute commute home from work in the car. (I know, I know. I could probably be arrested for this now.) But it was a reliable, daily interval when I knew that I could make those calls. Now that I don’t commute, I’ve lost that window. Compound that with a time change that’s anywhere from five to eight hours, and over time, I just started calling my friends less and less. Until now. Now that I’ve given myself leave not to use spare time on Saturdays to jump on the computer, I can usually find 30 minutes somewhere in the day to call a friend back in America. And it’s been really great to re-connect.

4. I went shopping. For myself. Yes, I realize that this isn’t such a great admission for most people, but I am not a natural shopper. And so – even when I desperately need something, a pair of new boots, perhaps…a bra…heck, even some new socks – I will always opt to get some work done, rather than go out and shop. No more. Because I’ve now given myself permission to shop on Saturdays. In the past month, I’ve purchased some running shoes, a new jacket, some earrings…even a colorful scarf to brighten up this dreary London winter.

5. I’m more productive. Finally, taking Saturdays off has also helped my productivity. I would often drag myself to the computer on Saturday – not really wanting to wade through my inbox but feeling like I ought to “because I had the time.” Now, in contrast, I think about Saturdays as “my time” – a chance to re-charge those proverbial batteries. And then, when I do sit down on Sunday morning to tackle that cluttered in-box, I actually have more energy.

*****

Here’s a piece I wrote on Friday for PoliticsDaily.com about Tony Blair’s testimony before the Chilcot Inquiry on his role in the War in Iraq.


Image: Chemistry Outfit, No. 1, 1947 by Chemical Heritage Foundation via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Celebrating the Sabbath: Making Saturdays *Me* Time

I have an announcement to make:  I’m going to start celebrating the Sabbath.

No, I’m not getting in touch with my inner Jew. (For the moment, I think I’ll continue to remain Jew-ish rather than Jewish.)

I’m afraid it’s a much less lofty goal than that. I’ve decided not to work on Saturdays anymore (read: no blogging, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter) so that I can focus more on myself. Or – to put it more accurately – I’d like to designate Saturdays as a day for doing things outside of work that also make me happy.

Yes, I know it’s a radical concept. But as Colleen of Communicatrix fame points out with characteristic wit and insight, it’s really hard to find time for the things we wish to prioritize in our lives unless we make room for them. She’s turning all of January into December so that she can take stock, clear the decks and plunge in with some new projects. Back in November, I took a self-imposed vacation so that I could send out my novel to agents.

The break I have in mind for Saturdays is somewhat different. The above projects are all about carving out space to move forward on the work front. What I have in mind is moving forward on the life front. For as I sat in a Viennese coffee house over the holidays and reflected on my life, I realized that in my never-ending quest to get on top of my to-do list, two things that  bring me true happiness had both fallen by the wayside:   doing yoga and reading The New Yorker.

You see, this is how my mind works. If something gets deemed a necessity in my life, it gets done. If it’s deemed a luxury, it may or may not get done. But if it does get done, that likely only happens around 11:59 p.m. on a Thursday evening with half an eyelid open and the corresponding amount of energy. And because I had begun labeling both yoga and The New Yorker “luxuries,” they just weren’t happening anymore, at least with the regularity that’d like.

So I’m making a change. For the next month – and I’m telling you this because one way you signal a commitment is to give yourself a time-line and say it out loud – I’m going to experiment with assigning myself only two jobs on Saturday – going to yoga and reading The New Yorker. My hope is that if I can do just those two things (with anything else a bonus), I’ll not only be happier, I’ll actually be more productive when I do return to the computer. If this strategy goes well and proves realistic, I’ll commit for the year.

Of course, I’m hoping that this new routine will incur other benefits as well. To wit:

*more face-to-face parenting, rather than shouting commands over my shoulder as I hurtle through my RSS feed

*making a dinner that does not involve something out of a jar from Tesco

*quality time with my husband so that we can watch more DVD commentaries and listen to Garrison Keillor together

*actually playing all those board games that I bought for Hanukkah (BTW: Settlers of Catan? Totally worth it…)

And who knows? Maybe we’ll even make it to synagogue one of these days…

*****

On a much more somber note, here’s a piece I did for PoliticsDaily.com about the ongoing drama surrounding the theft of a sign from Auschwitz.


Image: The New Yorker Fugitive by Rakka via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The Road Not Taken: What I Learned From Watching Mamma Mia

“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”

–Frank Sinatra, My Way.

What a great quote that is.

I’ve been thinking about regret lately. It all began with this touching piece by David Sedaris in The New Yorker a few weeks back. Sedaris writes movingly about a near-hook up he almost had in his early 20’s with a Lebanese guy whom he met on a train in Italy. Although the guy invites Sedaris to get off the train and join him, Sedaris passes on the opportunity. But he still thinks about that guy – and what might have been – all these years later. The essay is a giant homage to that great question of adulthood: What if?

The Road not Taken is also the subject of Mamma Mia, which – for my sins – I watched with my kids last weekend at their behest. (I fully own up to my abiding love of musical theatre, but even I balk at Abba.)

Mamma Mia – and I’m not spoiling anything here – is about a young woman on the brink of getting married who doesn’t know who her father is. So (unbeknown to her mother) she invites the three likely candidates to her wedding. Passion, longing, anger, resentment (and far too many Abba songs) ensue. The movie is all-out camp, but nestled within all the cheese are a few touching moments that actually work (Meryl Streep singing The Winner Takes It All to a love-struck Pierce Brosnan was my own personal favorite).

What Sedaris’ essay and Mamma Mia have in common is wistfulness, which is a huge part of adulthood. In Sedaris’ case, it’s not that he regrets whom he ended up with. (He makes a subtle nod to his long-time partner, Hugh, at the end of the essay.) It’s just that he’s wondering if –  in turning down that handsome Lebanese guy all those many years ago – he missed the boat. Not necessarily the boat, but a boat nonetheless. And in so doing, he articulates that great fear of adulthood:  which is that once we make a choice, everything else becomes path dependent.  Which in turn forces us to come to grips with the fact that we may never go round again.

This can be a fear about your personal life, as it was in these two instances. But it’s also a fear that we bring to career choices and to where we live and to the schools we attend (or don’t). What I find moving about wistfulness is that you can’t really escape it. You need to just live with it and perhaps, even, embrace it by – say – writing a short story in the New Yorker.

On a lighter note, midway through the movie – which is shot on the Greek islands – I commented that I’d like to go to Greece. To which my daughter replied: “OK, but let’s not go to Latin.” No, indeed. Let’s not.

Please tell me that you, too, are now singing “The Winner Takes It All”…

*****

Speaking of musical theatre, is anyone else as excited as I am that they’re making a movie about the making of A Chorus Line? OK, anyone who isn’t my sister?

Image: Two Roads Diverged in a Non-Yellow Wood by Msmail via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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