In a recent issue of the Westchester WAG, Seema Boesky, ex-wife of Ivan, wrote a column that began with a curious declaration: “My boyfriend and I are watching our pennies, so we didn’t exchange gifts of value over the Christmas holidays and movies have been our primary source of entertainment.” This from a woman who got $80 million of her husband’s money in 1993, as well as their homes in Paris, Manhattan, and Hawaii. Was it posturing? Sure. But it revealed something essential about this moment: During a recession, no one wants to be Imelda Marcos. Colin Camerer, an economist who studies risk at Caltech, suspects human beings may even develop a biological revulsion to excess in leaner times. “My sense is that the same purchases that are glamorous and thrilling when times are good (Hummers, $2,000 handbags),” he writes in an e-mail, “are literally disgusting (i.e., activate disgust brain regions) when times are bad.” He might have added we develop a literal distaste too. During recessions, people get thinner. (Possibly because they’re eating more home-cooked meals.) They also cut down on cigarettes and alcohol. (They’re expensive.)
Even if we’re just paying lip service to the idea, the reemerging value of material restraint may be yet another silver lining to this downturn. As most economists and psychologists can tell you, the steady acquisition of gewgaws and appurtenances doesn’t make us happier once our basic needs are met. Some will go so far as to say that material acquisitions make us less happy. Schwartz puts it this way: “During the boom, people were by and large chasing the wrong stuff, because they were chasing stuff.” Psychologists like him have a term for our misplaced and unending hunger for more and more stuff: the hedonic treadmill.
New York, the land of the 24-hour gym, is the world capital of hedonic treadmills. The opportunity to covet new stuff presents itself in every shop window, on every street corner, on every wall in every window we glimpse as we’re wandering along Museum Mile. In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz describes with vivid persuasiveness the problems that visit those of us who seek the best of everything, or “maximizers”: second-guessing, susceptibility to disappointment, an inability to savor. In study after study, they’re far more miserable than “satisficers,” or those who are willing to make do. “And my suspicion,” says Schwartz, “is that New York, because it offers so many consumer options, creates maximizers.”
Our own billionaire mayor, who lives just off Museum Mile, is the perfect embodiment of this form of excess. For the last two decades, he’s been acquiring portions of the townhouse next to his, though his Beaux Arts limestone already contains 7,500 square feet of space. (He’s now at 12,500 and counting.) And let’s not forget that third term he seeks, a prize he so badly covets he pushed through legislation to make it possible. In most cases—and most places—a political term isn’t a commodity, but Bloomberg turned it into one, spending $74 million of his personal fortune on his first election and $77 million on his second, and now gearing up to spend $80 to $100 million on his third.
Schwartz hardly regards this recession as a welcome development. But he hopes it will at least make people begin to recognize the value of experience over material accumulation. “There’s good evidence people get more pleasure from experiences than possessions,” he explains. “So constraining people materially might make them more satisfied with their lives.”
During the Great Depression, people definitely chose free and cheap forms of entertainment when money was scarce. They played board games, gathered around the radio, went to the movies, clustered in coffeehouses. And today, in New York, there’s evidence that something similar is happening. People seem to be looking for things to do, rather than things to buy. The volunteer boom is part of this trend. So is the widely reported uptick in moviegoing—and it’s not all to see action movies, either: Receipts at BAM Rose Cinemas are up 10.5 percent over what they were at this time last year, and receipts at BAMcinématek are up 15.5. Attendance at BAMcafé Live, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s weekend program of drinks and free music, is up by roughly 25 percent, and sales for single-ticket events at the 92nd Street Y—lectures, concerts, dance performances—are up 5 percent. Though a dive in foreign tourism has dragged down overall attendance at our big museums, local attendance is up at many of them, especially those popular with families: The Children’s Museum has seen a 5 percent increase in its local patronage; the Natural History museum’s local traffic in January and February, while the same as last year’s (a record high), is up considerably from the same months of 2007 and 2006. The Frick Collection says it’s seen a notable increase in traffic on Sundays, when admission is pay-as-you-will from eleven to one. And the Guggenheim’s traffic is up 2 percent across the board.