"Do the Poor Have More Meaningful Lives?"
January 24th, 2014
The New Yorker
Jonathan Safran Foer, in the first chapter of “Eating Animals,” recounts a conversation he once had with his grandmother, in which she described the combination of fear and hunger that haunted her in Eastern Europe as the Second World War drew to a close. When she became so hungry that she couldn’t imagine living through another day, a kind Russian farmer gave her a piece of meat:
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
Shigehiro Oishi, a University of Virginia psychologist who studies well-being, pointed to this passage when I e-mailed him last week to discuss a paper he wrote, with Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, which will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science. In the paper, Oishi and Diener found that people from wealthy countries were generally happier than people from poor countries. No surprise there. But they also found that people from poor countries tended to view their lives as more meaningful. Even Foer’s grandmother, impoverished and desperate, seems to have favored a meaningful, life-enriching religious tradition over immediate gratification.
Oishi and Diener have spent much of their careers hunting for the ingredients of well-being. For some economists, well-being is seen as arising when benefits outweigh costs; for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it requires good living conditions and positive relationships; for spiritualists, it’s a pleasurable state that can’t be measured by economists or by the C.D.C. Oishi and Diener, like many psychologists, believe that well-being is the sum of the positive and negative thoughts and feelings that arise when we reflect on our lives.
That includes—but can’t be limited to—happiness. Happiness, after all, doesn’t explain the popularity of ultramarathons, mountaineering, and Tough Mudder events (which Lizzie Widdicombe describes in this week’s magazine)—or the sacrifices parents must make to raise children. Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.
Oishi and Diener decided to understand how wealth influences both happiness and meaningfulness by examining the relationship between a country’s wealth and the well-being of its citizens. Thousands of people, completing an annual Gallup survey administered in a hundred and thirty-two countries, reported how happy they were, whether their lives had “an important purpose or meaning,” and where their lives stood on a scale from zero (worst possible life) to ten (best possible life).
The first result replicated plenty of earlier research: people from wealthier countries were generally happier than those from poorer countries. To reach an average life-satisfaction score of four out of ten, people needed to earn about seven hundred dollars a year; for a score of five, they needed to earn an average of three thousand dollars per year; for a score of six, they needed to earn an average of sixteen thousand dollars per year; and to score seven they needed to earn an average of sixty-four thousand dollars a year.
But, if wealth fostered happiness, it appeared to drain meaningfulness. Between ninety-five and a hundred per cent of the respondents from poverty-stricken Sierra Leone, Togo, Kyrgyzstan, Chad, and Ethiopia reported leading meaningful lives. Only two-thirds of the respondents in Japan, France, and Spain believed their lives had meaning.
There are plenty of reasons that poverty might inspire a search for meaning. Oishi and Diener found that people from religious countries were more likely to report that their lives had meaning. In fact, religious belief turned out to be the trait most strongly correlated with meaning. Religion provides a sense of purpose, and imbues otherwise mundane choices, like an observant Jew’s decision to avoid pork, with great significance. People from poor countries also tended to have stronger social connections—to report that they could count on friends and family for support if they encountered trouble—and to have more children than the rich; Oishi and Diener found that people from countries with a higher fertility rate consistently reported leading a meaningful life.
For a paper published last year by the psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, four hundred adults in the United States completed a survey designed to measure, separately, what made their lives happier or more meaningful. The researchers found that people were happiest when their needs and desires were met in the present, but that this immediate fulfillment “was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.” Respondents derived meaning from considering the whole of their lives, including the past and future. Happiness was generally a reflection of how they felt in the present alone. Happier people were more likely to report leading easy lives, to be in good health, to feel good much of the time, and to be able to buy what they needed without financial strain. People who felt their lives were meaningful, on the other hand, were likelier to have experienced fulfilling social relationships, engaged in acts of charity, taken care of their children, thought about struggles and challenges, and prayed, among other activities. These characteristics sound a lot like the social ties and religious beliefs that gave poorer people a sense of purpose in Oishi and Diener’s paper. Perhaps because poverty strips people of happiness in the short term, it forces them to take the long view—to focus on the relationships they have with their children, their gods, and their friends, which become more meaningful over time.
Foer’s grandmother knew that food could be a source of happiness, but, in her misery, it was a source of meaning. “Food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes you, and it helps you remember,” Foer notes, in a description of the Jewish Passover meal. “Eating and storytelling are inseparable—the saltwater is also tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction.”
[Adam Alter is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, and an assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business.]