Poor people are probably not happier, or better off, than we are

One thing that's really gotten on my nerves recently is when other volunteers or people I know talk about how happy people in the rural villages are. The person who brings this up usually goes on to imply one of two things: a) these people are happier than people in the West, and we should be embarrassed to have so much and yet so desperately seek happiness, or b) in absolute terms, their lives are better. Sometimes this is accompanied by the speakers longing for simpler times, without so much technology. This is also the premise behind the ending to the final season of Battlestar Galactica; the space folk find a planet inhabited by simple people, with limited technology, and decide to abandon their sophisticated, space-faring ways and lead pastoral lives. We're led to believe that millions of people voluntarily give up their technology for a fresh start. This is also the message that Jesus had for the tax man when he said, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Granted, Jesus may have been discussing a gate rather than a sewing needle, but the message remains: to earn eternal life, you have a better chance if you give up your possessions. Presumably giving up your possessions makes you less selfish, more aware of suffering, or merely benefits others enough that it's worth it for you to do. Given this evidence, the way people talk about the poor, and the urging of a figure hailed as a savior by billions, I would expect rich people to abandon their possessions in droves. Surely if being poor, and lacking possessions, was so much better for peoples happiness, or if they were serious about gaining eternal life, then they would shun new technology, give up their things and live among the world's poorest. Even if a fraction of a fraction of Western civilization acted on this idea, we're still talking about a hundred thousand people or more. The fact that virtually no one from Western civilization actually does this, to my knowledge, leads me to conclude that pretty much everyone prefers having more money, and more possessions, to having less money and fewer possessions. This is backed up by the Stevenson study showing that everywhere around the world higher income is related to higher levels of happiness. These both suggest that development measures tied purely to increasing levels of income among rural villagers aren't terrible. Why do so many rich people talk like that, where they imagine that poor people are relatively happy? I can think of two reasons. One, it's extremely difficult to imagine what life is like as a poor person. If you've always earned a steady income, had access to food, and/or had health insurance, it might be hard to imagine life where you earn 70% of a meager yearly income in only two months, where you may have to skip meals, or where a simple trip to the doctor can waste a months salary. Furthermore, the consumption margin for the rich is things like iPhones, more clothes, or a fifth TV. The relevant consumption margin for the poor are goods like a laundry machine or dishwasher, a first TV or mobile phone, or a first two wheeler. These are all goods which we use every day and can't really imagine what it would be like to live without. Doing laundry by hand for three months has taught me that it really sucks, both in terms of time and effort, and I don't doubt that having the means to save time and acquire a laundry machine would make people happier. The second reason might be an attempt by rich people to rationalize vast differences in wealth by noting that the poor are happy. From a utilitarian perspective, a marginal dollar gives more benefit to a poor person than a rich person, putting the rich in an uncomfortable position. Any measure which allows people to justify not immediately giving all of their money to the poor is usually welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Poor people are probably not happier, or better off, than we are

  1. Sophia

    So THAT’s how Battlestar Galactica ends? Thanks for the spoiler!

    I think you’re right though — we don’t know what it means to be poor.

    Reply
  2. Rajat

    Hey Kevin,

    Good post, and I think I both agree and disagree with you. The way I’ve seen it in my 18 years in India and 3 in the States, is that people who are “poor,” are often, in fact, more content, if not happy, than people in a much higher economic strata.

    It’s definitely not a linear relationship though — one definitely needs enough so as to not worry daily means of substinence, and yes, I’ve seen plenty for whom that’s a luxury, and there is no way that it can be alleged that they are happy, let alone happier than richer people.

    Good post, buddy!

    Reply
  3. Andy McKenzie

    Good point, I agree and this annoys me to no end as well. Here’s a particularly nasty and cynical explanation. The people who usually say that people in poor countries are actually better off are people who are sort of free riding on the innovation of people actually producing western tech. They are in less technical professions that are non-science, non-engineering, non-entrepreneurial, etc., and thus they themselves don’t contribute much directly to western tech. So to increase their relative status they maintain that they don’t really *need* western tech and might even be better off w/o it.

    Reply

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