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Wealth Doesn't Make the Rich Happier, But Poverty Makes the Poor Sadder

Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images

A recent Oxfam report on soaring global inequality warned that by next year, if current wealth-gap trends hold, the richest 1 percent may own more wealth than the remaining 99 percent. Oxfam’s calculations of the wealth of the most fortunate relied upon Forbes’ annual list of billionaires, many of whom are American, including eight out of the top ten. The rest of us may fantasize about joining their company—and if reality TV is any indication, we do—but does wealth really make rich people happier in their daily lives?

Not really, according to research published in a recent issue of Social Psychological and
 Personality Science by scholars from Michigan State University and the University of British Columbia. But a lack of wealth does make poor people sadder.

Studying a regular day in the lives of several people from different social strata, the researchers found “no trace of a relationship between income and happiness,” writing that “this finding, however, dovetails with recent theory and research showing that wealth may undermine people’s ability to savor positive events, largely canceling out the happiness benefits of higher income.” In other words, the sheer abundance of experiences and possessions available to the rich at all times makes regular days seem dreadfully dull. So much for champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

Yet, though the wealthy don’t appear to receive a joy bump from their income, the poor do suffer from greater daily sadness than the rich. Controlled for daily activities—from commuting, to socializing, to talking on the phone—researchers found that “poorer people feel sadder than wealthier people because income predicts greater sadness throughout the day regardless of what people are doing.” That is, differences in activities don’t explain the sadness gap and blue-collar blues can’t be chalked up even to the misery of low-income working conditions. The researchers also controlled for stress—the poor suffer a great deal more of it—and concluded that the psychological burdens of poverty don't sufficiently explain the greater sadness endured by the poor.

There are probably a variety of reasons poorer people feel sadder than their wealthier counterparts, not the least of which is the lack of control poverty visits upon its host populations. As the study authors point out, “To the extent that perceived control is associated with feeling less sadness but not more happiness …the association between wealth and perceived sense of control could at least partially explain why wealth predicted lower sadness but not higher happiness.”

There’s likely more to it than that.

In Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett’s sociological text The Hidden Injuries of Class, the authors document a series of interviews with poor workers aimed at uncovering the internal pain of poverty. In the context of this recent study on income and sadness, Cobb and Sennett’s takeaway is striking. “[T]he badges of inner-ability people wear seem unfairly awarded, yet hard to repudiate," the authors explain. In other words, the comparisons we make—especially those that put us on the losing side—may be unfair or unearned, but when it comes to self-image, they stick. Those feelings of inadequacy and failure persist for poor people throughout daily activities and over time. "That is the injury of class in day-to-day existence, that the people we encountered face; it is a tangled relationship of denied freedom and dignity infinitely more complex than a resentment of ‘what other people are doing to me.’”

Put simply, inequality imposes upon the lower classes a comparison that can never be achieved, one that is growing more distant and disquieting by the day. But, rather than being jealous of the material excesses of the rich, poor people seem rather ready to identify their own shortcomings—real or imagined, fairly or unfairly acquired—as the source of their lesser control and dignity. No wonder lower-income people feel more sadness in all daily activities than their uptown counterparts; a problem that will only worsen as inequality grows.