Friday, July 28, 2006

Can Money Buy Happiness?

The latest issue of Money magazine has a really good article called "Can Money Buy Happiness?" You should try to read the full article, but here is a summary of the main points:

Survey of people who said that they were "very satisfied" with life:

<$20K - 22%

$20K - $50K - 30%

$50K - $90K - 42%

$90K+ - 43%

This is very interesting. I believe that as long as you have enough money to provide for basic needs (so that you don't have to stress about paying the bills), more money beyond that does not lead to a proportionate increase in happiness. The article gave three reasons why this might be so:

You overestimate how much pleasure you'll get from having more. They said that intially after you purchase a new item, you feel very happy. But you quickly become used to having it around and it no longer makes you as happy. People make a mistake in thinking that perhaps they just bought the wrong item. :)

More money can lead to more stress. For example, having a big house in the suburbs might not increase your happiness if you end up spending 3 hours in commute traffic every day.

You endlessly compare yourself with the family next door. They said that your happiness depends mainly on how we feel compared to those immediately closest to us, and not to the ultra-rich that we see on TV or magazines. So if you have more money, but everyone around you also has more money, then you won't necessarily be happier!

So then, if money is not the key to happiness, what is? Again, three possibilities:

Friends and family are a mighty elixir. The people around us are most responsible for our happiness. Personally the happiest time in my life was getting my bachelor's degree at UCLA, which coincidentally was the time that I was the poorest. But all my friends were poor too, and we figured out all these creative ways to have fun without a big budget, and had a blast.

Doing things can bring us more joy than having things. I think this is really profound. You can surround yourself with things, but if you don't actually do anything you will just get bored. Interestingly, they also said that vacations are worthwhile, because even if we are stressed out on them, or things don't go as planned, as time passes we remember only the good things that happened.

Applying yourself to something hard makes you happy. Right on the money again. My satisfaction with work doesn't seem to be tied to how many hours I spend there (or how few), but on whether I feel that what I am doing is important and interesting.

In conclusion, they said that it important for us to 'Think Happy." They said that some characteristics of happy people are 1) they don't waste time dwelling on unpleasant things 2) they tend to interpret ambiguous events in positive ways, and 3) they aren't bothered by the successes of others.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Pretty Woman

I ran out of things to do last night, so I watched Pretty Woman again. Pretty Woman might be one of the most beloved movies of all time. The plot is the typical improbable Hollywood story. A successful-but-lonely billionaire corporate raider picks up a poor-but-goodhearted prostitute on Hollywood Blvd. He is intrigued by her genuineness and pays her to stay with him for a week. During the course of the week she causes him to re-evaluate his workaholic life, and his cutthroat business practices. And as he treats her with respect, she learns to value her own life more. Aside from the questionable moralities, this is not really a believable story. I mean, this kind of stuff doesn't happen every day. But I think this movie shows that audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief for "good" movies. So why does this movie work? What elements turn what could have been a very pedestrian romantic comedy into a classic?

Stars - we all love the stars, especially new ones. Julia Roberts lights up the screen in this, her breakout role. She had some critical, though not necessarily popular, success in Steel Magnolias. But Pretty Woman created the image that carried her to superstardom - the smile, the beautiful dresses, the spunky attitude. Even Richard Gere was relatively unknown at this point, although he had several successful roles in American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Cotton Club.

Screen Chemistry - this pairing of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere has to go up there among the top screen couples of all time. It's hard to predict when that chemistry will happen, and there's no guarantee that it will happen again (ahem, Runaway Bride). But what would Pretty Woman be without its two stars. In the same way, what would Casablanca be without Humprey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, or Titanic without Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet?

Good Filmmaking - Garry Marshall is an accomplished director, and I like the way he gives this movie an honest, straightforward treatment. Sometimes you'll see movies like this being filled with cliches, overdone sentimentality, unorthodox camerawork, or even slapstick in order to get an audience reaction. Pretty Woman is fortunately free of this, instead relying on strong character development to engage viewers, and I think this contributes to its timeless quality. There are also some very memorable visuals - Julia Roberts in the red dress, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere taking the day off to picnic in the park, etc.

Emotional Truth - As I said, the story is a bit hard to believe, but there is some truth in the movie. The actors do a good job selling the emotions of their characters, and I feel the movie does say some profound things about self-respect, and people believing in each other.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Hmm, can you say "chick flick"? :) This Charlotte Bronte wannabe oozes with tragedy, desperate straits, and sentimentality. I'll not summarize the story in case any of you want to watch it, but it is a period British film with so many unfortunate circumstances that it feels a bit unrealistic and contrived, not to mention a shameless tear-jerker. So I'm a little confused as to why so many of the user reviews on Netflix and Y! Movies are so positive! It seems people really love this movie - and not just the ladies, mind you, but also many guys. I suppose that for what it is, it is quite a well made movie. The cinematography has a nice restrained feel, though it is shot a bit small, almost like a TV movie. But I think it is the amazing Sophie Marceau that sets this movie apart and makes it worth watching. She has great screen presence, and dominates the scenes where she is onscreen. And we really 'feel' the story through her character, and also through the character played by the British actor Stephen Dillane, who is also very good.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Zhang Zi-Yi Rocks

I found this incredibly cute picture of Zhang Zi-Yi on the web, and I thought I'd post it, and also test out the blog photo upload. "Ziyi" Zhang is, of course, the beautiful and talented Chinese actress who debuted in Zhang Yimou's The Road Home, then rocketed to fame in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar last year for Memoirs of a Geisha. In my opinion, she should be nominated every year, just because she is the cutest one. Mind you, I'm not saying she needs to *win* every year. She should just be nominated so that we can see her on the red carpet. Of course if she wins, then we get to see her give a speech in her heavily accented English, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Team America

"Pearl Harbor sucked, and I miss you." I normally don't watch movies like this. (Really. No REALLY!!!). But I saw a guy watching it on his laptop on Caltrain, and it seemed pretty funny (or at least he was deriving a lot of entertainment out of it), so I rented it through Netflix. And I feel very guilty about this, but I have to say that I liked it. :)

Team America, directed by South Park's Trey Parker, is your typical action movie about a team of U.S. special agents sent to foil a worldwide terrorist attack. Well, except that everyone in the movie is a marionette. And it's funny because the movie doesn't try overly hard to disguise the fact that they are marionettes. Like the scene where one of the female agents reaches out to touch one of the male agents, but she can't because her arm won't unbend all the way. Or the horribly choreographed fight scenes and sex scene that are hilarious because they look so ridiculous.

Because it's by the South Park, you know the movie will be irreverant. It's very tongue-in-cheek, but a little like Naked Gun in that the most outrageous ideas (the main hero is an actor, for crying out loud) and also some more subtley bizarre stuff (like the song lyrics at the beginning of this blog) are all presented with total seriousness. My suggestion - rent it once and watch it, and never tell anyone you did it. Note: no historical landmarks were harmed during the making of this film.

Thursday, July 6, 2006


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

This is a classic passage from Thoreau's Walden. You might recognize it from the movie Dead Poet's Society. Thoreau almost sets the standard for living life on your own terms, and on living a simple and self-reliant life. I like what he says about not relying on what other people say about life, but on living it to the fullest, and determining for yourself whether it is good or bad.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006


Another gem from Emerson's essay Self-Reliance:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowds keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Match Point

This is a terrifc movie. I've actually not seen very many movies by Woody Allen, but I was obligated to see Match Point because of Scarlet Johannsen. I was expecting a literate, dialogue-heavy script with well-developed characterizations, and this movie certainly delivered in that respect. What surprised me was how beautifully made this movie is, though I think a lot of the credit for that goes to cinematographer Remi Adefarasin.

The movie is about a young Irishman, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has had a mediocre career as a professional tennis player and grudgingly quits to become an instructor at a British tennis club. He meets the sister of one of his well-bred clients, and is soon married into one of Britain's upper-class families and given a position in the family business. He is skyrocketing up the social ladder and has a women who loves him dearly, and all seems well except for one fatal flaw - his obsession with a sexy but struggling American actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johanssen), who happens to be engaged to his brother-in-law!

The introduction of Scarlett Johannsen injects a lot of sexual tension into the movie, and it gradually escalates into a taut psychological thriller. But the part that I liked the best is the way it displays the nuances of people and relationships, in particular a sensible yet passionless marriage, and a passionate affair that has no future. The roles are played very well by the two main actors, Rhys Meyers and Johannsen. As noted in several reviews, Match Point is very similar to the classic A Place in the Sun, with enough plot changes and role reversals to keep the story fresh and original. Rhys Meyers' Montgomery Clift is set against Johannsen's bizarre mixture of Shelley Winters and a young Elizabeth Taylor in a very entertaining and intriguing movie.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've been reading some of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays for a video course on Amerian literature. I've found it pretty tough going, not so much because of the language, but because his ideas are often so abstract. However I will quote some sections that strike me in particular. This is from Nature:

All men are in some degree impressed by the face of the world; some men even to delight. This love of beauty is Taste. Others have the same love in such excess, that, not content with admiring, they seek to embody it in new forms. The creation of beauty is Art.

I've been looking for a good definition of 'art', and I find the simplicity of this definition intriguing - "the creation of beauty is art". It does leave out the communicative aspect of art. Certainly from the earliest examples of art, it has contained religious, political, or moral messages. And post-Impressionist art introduced the idea of art echoing the emotions of the artist. For example, would one necessarily call Munch's expressionist work "The Scream" a "beautiful" painting? But it's significance in art is clear.

Also what is the line between craft and art? A finely crafted vase or cup may be beautiful, but does it's usefulness prevent it from being art? It seems innovation or creativity must factor into the definition somehow. Nevertheless I do like this definition a lot. :)


Another quote from Emerson's Nature:

But this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part. The shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality. Go out of the house to see the moon, and 't is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who ever could clutch it? Go forth to find it, and it is gone: 't is only a mirage as you look from the windows of diligence.

This is a remarkable statement. He says that beauty diminishes if we seek it too eagerly - that it is better if it surprises us in the normal course of our day. I wonder if this applies to the rest of life - that our appreciation of life comes down to the management of expectations?