There is the cliché saying, Money can’t buy you happiness.
Then there is the counter to that saying, Those who claim money can’t buy you happiness clearly have never been without money.
Philosophically, I find that I fall somewhere in the middle. I have never really been without money, so I cannot speak to the level of happiness I could achieve with a complete void of funds. And, I have had some great times in my life that required no entrance fees, nor purchase of any type of merchandise. Yet, I would be lying if I were to say that I have not experienced a great deal of happiness where money was involved.
Maybe I feel this is so due to my less than solid connection with the earth. It is possible that I could improve my relationships with other human beings to facilitate greater happiness. It could be, that in a society where everything has become commodified, money is required to purchase things that had always been priceless facilitators of happiness.
Admission must be paid to enjoy certain aspects of nature. Many relationships are facilitated or maintained through costly digital means and services connected to such technology. Furthermore, if we are to get technical, money is required to purchase fundamental needs–water, food, shelter, clothing–all of which could be perceived as prerequisites for many potentially happy experiences. But I digress (I am working on my brevity, and such a topic could go on for paragraphs, if not posts).
It was actually an evening spent with my family on the day of Christmas that got me thinking about the correlation between money and happiness. In retrospect, the entire night could have been a case study exploring the dynamics between money and happiness.
This year, my parents, my partner, and I went to go visit my brother in New York for the holiday break this year. He has been living in Brooklyn going on three years now, he wasn’t planning to come home for the break, and I had yet to go visit him. Thus, a visit back east was long overdue.
On the day of Christmas, we found ourselves trying to pick out a restaurant at the last minute for a “nice dinner.” Well, we definitely over-shot the mark and ended up with reservations at Morimoto’s restaurant (of Iron Chef fame).
After going with my dad, the landscape architect, to visit some reclaimed elevated train tracks that have been turned into a park, and wandering through the over-priced, yet culinarily extravagant, Chelsea Market, our family ended up at Morimoto.
The restaurant was beautiful. Long clean lines of brushed steel, polished concrete, and lightly (if not completely) unstained wood make up much of the interior of this multi-tiered space. Soft, yet dramatic lighting, sand-colored upholstery, a wall of clear, blue, and teal-colored glass bottles sections off part of the space, and the rippled curve of the ceiling whimsically references the lips of scallop shell–all elements that that contribute to a feeling of being inside of some sort of fantastic sea cave. (Special note to anyone thinking of visiting Morimoto in New York: check out the bathroom stalls. Best bathroom stalls ever.)
The meal, of course, was amazing. The food Masaharu Morimoto creates is brilliant. Simple reinterpretations of soul food such as bi bim bop, or beef curry and bread highlight the ways in which a little bit of outside the box thinking, and high quality ingredients can enhance dishes that have been around for a long time. (I actually went home to try to create his “Buri Bop” with some hamachi I purchased from the Japanese market the day we got back. The dish was decent, but the hamachi Morimoto used was on a whole other level, and that made all the difference.)
Some dishes required a certain level of playfulness to consume. The nigiri sushi was without flaws. My mom had the most perfectly prepared sea bass I have ever tasted. Once the food arrived, almost all of our conversation focused on the food and the wonder it facilitated. The meal was just… fun.
I think everyone had a good time. My mom said it was one of the best dining experiences of her life. My brother enjoyed it nearly as much as an individual who lives off of microwavable green chili burritos and Cheerios could possibly enjoy a plate of steak and raw fish. My dad said it was one of the better meals he has had outside of Japan. My partner and I definitely enjoyed our meals.
The ambiance was memorable, the food was spectacular, and the service was seamless. What could make this experience better? How about meeting the legend himself! We met Masaharu Morimoto! This was actually a huge deal for me, as it was the Iron Chef television show that shifted my interest in food from passing curiosity to legitimate obsession. Moreover, my visit to Morimoto in Philadelphia marked my greatest food epiphany–I came to understand what food could be. Up until that point, I understood that creativity and plating could make a dish seem interesting on television, and I could imagine the flavors. However, on that day I learned that an interpretation of a dish could be revolutionary, and with precise execution, the consumption of such a creation could actually be sublime.
Now that I think about it, Masaharu Morimoto actually had a huge influence on my life, and up until this evening, I had never met the man in my life! The ponytailed man came to our table gave us all warm fleshy hand shakes, posed for some pictures, and had a brief conversation in Japanese with my dad. I was too awestruck to say anything more than, “nice to meet you.” Nevertheless, I will be hard pressed to forget that moment.
At the end of the evening, while I was taking a look at the bathroom (it is a weird habit, but I do this at every interesting restaurant or hotel I visit), my mom walked up to Chef Morimoto as he was observing the restaurant from the entry way.
“All of this must make you really happy.” She stated with a smile.
To her surprise, his response was, “Not really.” He went on to explain, only my mother couldn’t really understand what he was saying. A bit embarrassed, she thanked him for the meal and we all left the restaurant.
My mom felt bad because she thought he didn’t understand that which she was trying to say. However, I think he understood exactly what my mom said. As hard as it is to imagine, he probably just wasn’t happy with the scene before him.
From our prospective, we see a beautiful restaurant, and dozens of people following Morimoto’s lead as they create a enjoyable experience for hundreds of people each night. We see the Iron Chef, a television personality, with multiple restaurants around the world. He must be incredibly wealthy! How could he not be happy?
Maybe he was responding to the display in front of him. He could have been been upset that his beautiful restaurant was not completely full. The tremendous cost of his ultra-fancy restaurant, bearing his name, attached to Chelsea Market (not a cheap piece of real estate), probably weighs heavily upon him, as it is unlikely that the profit margin anywhere close to comfortable.
Morimoto may have been saying something even more profound to my mother. With sweeping gestures of his hand, he could have been saying, “None of this makes me happy. It is rare that I do that which I love most, and actually cook anymore these days. I am caught in an endless cycle of risking my empire to expand my empire. All of my money is tied up in these business ventures, and it stresses me out. Alas, now that I have many of the things I always wanted, I have no time to enjoy them with the people I love.”
In my mind, money and happiness seem to have a precarious relationship with one another. I imagine that that in the United States (if not all over the world) if one has too little money, life becomes difficult to enjoy. So much effort must be put into its pursuit, as its absence, in many cases, can be life-threatening. If one is focused, one may find one’s self successful in the game of money chasing. Yet, the spoils of victory may be seductive, and enough may never seem like enough. The pursuit of money risks becoming the only game in town, rather the means to a well-meant end.
I don’t necessarily know how to work through the money/happiness conundrum. It is far more complex than I can articulate, and far more insidious than my rambling mind can fathom.
I do however appreciate the experience that led to my wonderings.
On a freezing evening in New York, I was able to have an incredible dinner with the people I love most in this world. Money set the stage for our memorable evening (thanks, Mom and Dad), but it was sharing the experience with my family that made me really happy.
Maybe I should have pulled up along side of both of my parents as we were finishing dessert and said, “All this must really make you happy.”