[EDIT: Image of New York City removed at copyright holder’s request.]
This weekend I went to New York City with friends so they could attend a bridal shower. I love New York – but I’m also wary of it. Happiness researcher Christopher Peterson ran an online happiness questionnaire and analyzed the results by zip code – and found that the most miserable zip codes of all were found in midtown Manhattan. Peterson himself cautions that this is not a controlled or rigorous experiment, and even if it were, it would still be measuring happiness by the questionable measure of self-report.
Still, in many respects these results are exactly what I would expect. I found this happiness data from Penelope Trunk, who nails the problem with living in New York exactly. If you are (like me) the kind of person who loves city life, then in New York you really do have the best of everything, at least on this continent and in some cases anywhere: the best food, the best entertainment, the best shopping for almost any goods you could want, the best access to transportation, the best art. But that’s exactly the problem. On one hand, you’re competing with everyone else to have access to the best of everything, so everything is very expensive, so you have to work much harder to make more money. (A little like Dr. Seuss’s Solla Sollew, where they have no troubles except for the fact that you can’t actually live there.) On the other hand, and more insidiously, if you live in New York, it’s probably because you are the kind of person who tries to have access to the best of everything.
That is to say that New Yorkers, by and large, are maximizers rather than satisficers. The distinction comes from the economist Herbert Simon, and was recently popularized by positive psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. In brief: maximizers try to weigh every option and ensure that every choice is the best they can make, to get the best result. Satisficers, on the other hand, make choices quickly and don’t mind the idea that their choice might not have been the best.
I notice this problem in particular with respect to food. I love international food, and to me that’s the most wonderful thing of all about New York – it has a wider variety of food choices than just about anywhere else in the world. New York has Surinamese and Bajan and Xinjiang restaurants; in Manhattan you can get Burmese and Senegalese food delivered to your door, often 24 hours a day. Food writer Calvin Trillin lives in the food paradise of lower Manhattan, in some respects for exactly this reason. But in Trillin’s work one finds little gratitude for this extraordinary and unprecedented variety. Instead he maintains a list of all the food he can’t get in Manhattan, and calls it his “Register of Frustration and Deprivation.” Trillin, in other words, is a maximizer, who will never have enough and never be satisfied – and that seems to me characteristic of New York life. Even when you have the best in the world – maybe especially when you have the best in the world – it’s still not going to be good enough.
In many respects this was the lesson I learned in my youth in Thailand. What makes you unhappy is not that you don’t have enough, it’s the desire for more, itself. The Second Noble Truth again: suffering comes from craving. To live in New York seems to feed that craving.
New York makes me think of the myth of Eden – and the view, going back to St. Ambrose, that the fall from Eden made us better off (“O felix culpa.”) While there are perhaps few places in the world that are less like the Garden of Eden in a literal sense, New York shares with Eden the feeling of being a place where all desires can be satisfied. It seems to me that, if there ever had been an Eden, Adam and Eve would not actually have been happy there – they would have found ways to want more. (Indeed why else would the fall have happened?) At least for a city-lover like me, choosing to live outside of Eden, or outside of New York, is accepting and living with the fact that you can’t always get what you want – even within Eden.