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Scotch, Hip-Hop and the Art of Curiosity

Helping to develop a new branch of psychology, and a local professor exposes what it means to find lifelong happiness.

On a recent podcast, author Chuck Klosterman asked an important but ostensibly silly question, “If you watch ‘Saved by the Bell’ in 2011, do you enjoy it because you’re entertained, or do you enjoy it ironically?”

I don’t know the answer. So much of American pop culture, particularly in the life of young people, intertwines itself with our identity. The connection becomes so tight that its difficult to separate something objectively enjoyable from something pseudo-nostalgic. Loving “Saved by the Bell” in spite of and because of it’s faults, represents one example of this phenomena.

So the real question is: when we enjoy something, why do we enjoy it?

***

A teacher of mine once said that learning takes place in three stages: first it’s awkward, then it’s mechanical, then it becomes natural.

When I was 14, I did not take hip-hop music seriously. My brother and I used to sit on our bunk beds in our suburban bedroom filled with posters of Looney Tunes, tennis players and national parks just listening to 95.5 FM. We’d laugh at all the vernacular-laced lyrics and chuckle while watching half-naked women in music videos on BET’s 106 & Park.

As time went on, we still listened to The Beatles and U2 a lot, but listening to hip-hop became more frequent and less an exercise in childishness. For Christmas my senior year, my brother bought me Jay-Z’s “The Dynasty.” The time for enjoying hip-hop ironically, the way I now enjoy “Saved by the Bell,” had ended.

***

In 2008, one of my best friends and I began something I recognize as a journey only in hindsight. That summer I had visited the Talisker  Distillery on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, where some of the finest Scotch whiskey in the world is made.

I took the tour with my pack on, too enthralled with the details of Scotch distilling to put it away. I paid close attention to the malting and distilling processes and the description of how the waters from the nearby Cuillin Hills grant a unique peaty flavor to the iconic 10-year-old Scotch.

The tour ended with a tasting. With my new knowledge, I was eager to experience for the first time all the peaty subtleties of a premium Scotch. To my inexperienced palate, however, the Talisker tasted like gasoline and disappointment.

When I returned home to the States later that year, I was surprised and a little hesitant when my buddy decided to take up Scotch-drinking.


***

In the last 10 years, a very instrumental branch of psychology has emerged. It’s called positive psychology. The idea is to bring the same scientific attention that psychologists use to explore depression, negativity and anxiety, and apply it to the tools individuals use to bring happiness into their lives.

One local champion of positive psychology is Todd Kashdan, Associate Professor at . His research focuses on the happiness that results from being curious and open to new experiences.

In his book “Curious?: Discovering the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life,”  Dr. Kashdan argues that true lasting happiness doesn’t come from momentary pleasures, but from a sustained interest in the new and the renewed, and from an embracing of the unknown.

In an interview with Kojo Nnamdi in 2009, Dr. Kashdan described how bringing curiosity to the small things in life leads to a greater gratitude and greater contentment.

***

I may never be able to separate out what exactly I find valuable about watching “Saved by the Bell” in 2011, but it’s in the trying that I gain a greater appreciation for what pop culture has meant in my life.

In the same way, Scotch and hip-hop were great unknowns to me until I learned more about them. It’s difficult to pinpoint a moment, but there was a time when my curiosity carried me to a critical mass of knowledge about Scotch that made the taste of Talisker 10-year-old change from gasoline to smoky sweetness.

My experience with hip-hop changed from a mocking, almost disdainful attitude towards the music to one of appreciation for the subtlety of rhythm and message.

In fact, while I’ve been writing this article I’ve been listening to this song.

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