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I consider Woody Allen the master of the “New York Story.” A New York Story is much more than a story set in the city. It is a story that germinates from the practical realities of approximately 8,363,710 people living, working, and playing on an island 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide (at its widest). Shoulder to shoulder on the subway. Thin walls in studio apartments. The diversity of people and languages walking from one end of a block to the other.

All of this in a New York minute.

Despite the years and the thought (like Joan Acocella’s piece at Smithsonian.com) the perception of New Yorkers being rude still lingers. I have always felt the stigma of being rude was a result of the cultural insensitivity of visitors. Things move fast in the city. You are always five minutes late for something – even when you have nowhere in particular to be! This coupled with the learned familiarity of living in tight spaces could potentially be confused as rudeness by those from slower paced lifestyles that afford greater social pretenses.

The assumption now is that New Yorkers are unhappy, miserable people. Just before the end of 2009 a study by economists Andrew J. Oswald and Stephen Wu was published proclaiming, “Satisfaction with life is lowest in New York.”

Of course we (New Yorkers) with all our familiarity responded appropriately. My favorite so far has been Roy Edroso’s response on the Village Voice blog. Not because I share his opinions (at least not entirely) but because seeing the word “peckerwood” in print makes me giddy.

Adolescent tittering aside, news of the study reminded me of a post I read on Penelope Trunk’s blog. It asked: Do You Belong in NYC? Before considering a move to New York, Penelope asks you to consider three questions:

  1. Are you a maximizer (which she defines as someone always looking for something better)?
  2. Do you want to be at the top of your field?
  3. Do you value an interesting life or a happy one?

New Yorkers are maximizers, desire to be experts in their selected field, and value an interesting life over a happy one. Penelope points out “people who are happy are complacent – they like the status quo. And people who like what they have do not do innovative things to change the world. They like the world just fine how it is.”

I totally agree. New York City – the cultural capitol of art, fashion, finance, film, literature, and music – is no place for the complacent (the stereotypically happy). In order to prevent systematic collapse New York needs dreamers, innovators, the ambitious, the perfectionist, the insatiable.

Also in Penelope’s post is a link to a New York Magazine article featuring the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The center was established by Dr. Martin Seligman to “study such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions.” Among their tools is the Authentic Happiness Questionnaire.

The author, Jennifer Senior, completed the questionnaire and scored below average. I had a similar score when I completed mine. She uses her results as a springboard to define the concept of “positive psychology” and divine the meaning (and possibly purpose) of happiness.

Among the experts she interviews is Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. She writes:

He [Barry] argues, with terrible persuasiveness, that a superabundance of options is not a blessing but a certain recipe for madness. Nowhere do people have more choices than in New York. “New Yorkers should probably be the most unhappy people on the planet,” says Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore. “On every block, there’s a lifetime’s worth of opportunities. And if I’m right, either they won’t be able to choose or they will choose, and they’ll be convinced they chose badly.”

What’s important here is the belief that “they’ll be convinced they chose badly.” This ties back to Penelope Trunk’s maximizer questions. New Yorkers are not unhappy people but they are not easily satisfied either. There’s a difference.

The surveys and studies are vague about it. They assume that happiness and satisfaction are in direct relation. I think New Yorkers prove the two are different subjects. Like apples and oranges are fruit, happiness and satisfaction are a part of a larger umbrella classification. Whether you can that classification “life” or “meaning” or “meaning of life” is up to you.

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