How much money do you need? Exactly $60,000/year.

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on June 24, 2010 reports on a recent TED conference featuring Nobel laureate economist Daniel Kahneman remarks on personal happiness. Kahneman traces a great deal of our unhappiness to the difference between how we experience life and how we remember it. Among the infinite ways people have to make themselves unhappy, our human penchant for discovering false perfection in past moments is certainly among them.

But a simpler way to make yourself unhappy is by thinking about money. Because money can be exchanged for so many things, it can become the mother of all needs–replacing romantic neurosis as the number one crazy-maker as you get older and more loving of security. The near universal fungability of money makes it insidious. Though it is true that money can’t buy happiness or love, a nice was of cash can certainly distract from those needs temporarily.

What I found more interesting–and affirming–was Kahneman’s Q&A remarks after his presentation about money. His message is that money’s potential to bring happiness is both limited and fairly easily attainable. I’ll let mr. Kahneman speak for himself:

Below 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat.

“Clearly, he adds, “money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery.”

As we (or, um, I) make ourselves anxious about money, it’s worth remembering that it’s potential to bring joy and contentment pales in comparison to a good marriage or friends you enjoy spending time with. Of course, this little nugget of old-fashioned wisdom couldn’t be more facile. Does anyone ever come out and say that money trumps everything? Even good old fashioned yuppies are apt to pay lip service to the relative worthlessness of money, usually while driving their Jaguar to the Hamptons.

Nonetheless, it’s good to know there’s an actual number at which money stops buying happiness: $60,000.

Old, Weird America

Posted in Uncategorized by rfslack on June 24, 2010

Last week I finally picked up Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America, anticipating an informative stroll through the mystifying and dark underbelly of American history. I have long loved the phrase “old, weird America.” It evokes a lost subculture within American life of marginal people who made strange and alien art without even realizing it. The phrase exists as a counterpoint to the Official History of this country, which seems to unspool as the glaringly uninspiring story of acquisition and accumulation.

What I wanted from the book was a reconstruction of the strangeness that has always lurked just below the surface of American history. I knew the book was centered on Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, but I had read Lipstick Traces and I expected a similar feat: rather than regurgitating the entire history of the idea of radical freedom through the lens of the Sex Pistols, The Old, Weird America would trace a certain line of folk expression through our history. I also fully expected that some coherence would be sacrificed for a certain poeticism. When Marcus doesn’t know where to go next, his answer usually seems to be to just keep on piling up the words.

I ended up finding the book long on poetry and short on meaning. The Harry Smith Anthology is duly noted as source material, a handful of incidents that seemed to adduce a certain American penchant for sociopathic violence were dredged up (in Lipstick Traces, Marcus quoted political scientist Walter Dean Burnham as saying, “The great American substitute for social revolution is murder”) and great waves of not especially controlled metaphor were unleashed upon the reader. But mostly Marcus just wrote about the unfathomable greatness of The Basement Tapes, how this album seemed to tap into the unselfconsciously strange aura of traditional American folk music. I like The Basement Tapes (though I rank it in the second tier of Dylan’s ouevre) but to me the greatness of The Basement Tapes is most definitely fathomable.

The book left me with a taste for the question that Marcus brings up and fails to answer: just how weird is this country? I am once again curious about this body of sometimes alienating Ameircan folk music. I know from past listening that some of this stuff is ethereal in its murkiness and jaggedness. On the other hand, there is plenty that is downright unlistenable for the same reasons.

The essential problem with The Old, Weird America is it wants to conjure up old ghosts–and then seems surprised to find the subject matter slippery and hard to pin down.