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The Diminishing Returns of Luxury Living

David Books, author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, with an excellent column on the diminishing returns of luxury living.

Often, as we spend more on something, what we gain in privacy and elegance we lose in spontaneous sociability.

I once visited a university that had a large, lavishly financed Hillel House to serve as a Jewish center on campus. But the students told me they preferred the Chabad House nearby, which was run by the orthodox Lubavitchers. At the Chabad house, the sofas were tattered and the rooms cramped, but, the students said, it was more haimish.

Restaurants and bars can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. At some diners and family restaurants, people are more comfortable leaning back, laughing loud, interrupting more and sweeping one another up in a collective euphoria. They talk more to the servers, and even across tables. At nicer restaurants, the food is better, the atmosphere is more refined, but there is a tighter code about what is permissible.

Hotels can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. You’ll find multiple generations at a Comfort Inn breakfast area, and people are likely to exchange pleasantries over the waffle machine. At a four-star hotel’s breakfast dining room, people are quietly answering e-mail on their phones.

Whole neighborhoods can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. Alan Ehrenhalt once wrote a great book called “The Lost City,” about the old densely packed Chicago neighborhoods where kids ran from home to home, where people hung out on their stoops. When the people in those neighborhoods made more money, they moved out to more thinly spaced suburbs with bigger homes where they were much less likely to know their neighbors.

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