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Money Can Buy Isolation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Man standing alone on a ship

Wealthy people can afford independence. As a result, they pay less attention to social cues than poorer folks do. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Money can bring you happiness, studies show, but not as much as you might think. The richer you get, the happier you get, but the returns diminish after you reach a certain standard of living. (See Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?) One of the reasons for this finding might be that as you move up in social ranking (socioeconomic status) you lose some of your dependency on others. Richer people don’t have to call friends for help. They can pay for it. A recent study shows, however, that there are big benefits from the increased social interaction that comes with being “lower class” in America.

Social psychologist Michael W. Kraus at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues have found that people who have less education (a proxy for riches and occupational prestige) or who come from self-described “lower class” families are better at reading the emotions of others than higher status people are. The people in the lower social status group scored higher on a test that involved identifying emotions in photographs of human faces. They more accurately judged the emotions of a partner during a hypothetical job interview. They were also better at inferring feelings from images of just the eyes. (Test your skill here.) In an earlier study, Kraus also showed that lower-class individuals exhibit more social engagement through gestures such as nodding the head and laughing.

one dollar, five dollar and ten dollar bill

The currency of status, not empathy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

By extension, richer and more educated people are not very good at recognizing other people’s emotions. They lack empathy. (This may explain the fact that rich people are not very generous and so, typically, do not make large charitable donations; see Can Money Buy Happiness?) The social disconnect that seems to accompany riches seems sort of sad, and it made me appreciate the ways in which my family’s lack of them might be making me happy.

We are not poor, but I have made certain choices for financial reasons that richer people would not. For one thing, we have only one car, which is, admittedly, a challenge for a family living in the suburbs with two kids. But I like challenges—and I really do not want to spend time and money on a second vehicle, even though I notice that almost none of my friends have deprived themselves of one. The one-car problem usually starts out as my logic puzzle for the week—how to get everybody where they need to go on Saturday, given two drivers but a single vehicle. When even my husband can’t solve the conundrum, I start texting and emailing other dads and moms about carpooling.

This coordination takes quite a bit of effort, and no, I don’t always like asking other people for help. But once I have made it happen, I realize how wonderful it is. Not only does everybody get to do what they wanted, or signed up, to do, but they end up with playdates at my house, or the friend’s. Sometimes the grown-ups hang out for dinner or a beer. I hear hilarious exchanges between my kids and their friends in the back seat. And always, my kids get to come and go to the party, or the practice, or the robot club meeting, with a pal.

There are other ways in which less money can beget social payoff. We use an after-school program for our kids rather than a sitter, mostly because sitters, while more convenient, are more expensive. Of course, these programs force my kids to interact with others. But in addition, the fact that they are not infinitely flexible means that sometimes, I need to ask friends or family to fetch my little cherubs. The other day, that earned us a visit from my incomparably generous mother-in-law. Other times, I call on my friends—and it usually cheers me up to see them, and to be reminded that I have them.

Two men hugging, at a game, from the back

Bonding with others is the fast track to happiness, experts say. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It never occurred to me that my frugality could boost my social life. And although I know that not having a fleet of fancy cars does nothing for my image, it actually makes my life richer, not poorer, in ways that I had not anticipated.

Too much attention to social cues and context can breed conflict, of course, and may contribute to the fact that lower-class individuals are more likely to get stuck in negative moods and suffer from mood disorders. (Many other factors could be involved here as well, not least of which might be financial stress.) But despite the potential drawbacks, connecting with neighbors, friends, family and colleagues is something that humans, rich or poor, should be doing more, not less. Forming close social bonds, experts say, may be the wisest investment in well-being that a person can make.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. a31pthink 9:38 pm 08/17/2011

    Hmmm…a deep emotional connection was the LAST thing I was expected as I furiously clicked away at the never-ending scroll in my inbox of SciAm, AmSci, Physics World, IEEE Spectrum, Mech Eng news, and all the other scientific and engineering newsletters that I get each day. Your article was quite touching(beautiful I might add). I’ve lived of which you speak. As a very young man I quickly ascended to the executive suite at a small company spun-off from a larger corporation. Parts of it were my own private fiefdom and I had power, money, prestige to spare. The only problem was as often is the case, my “soul” was bleeding out. A hard turn away from that business career and into something more fulfilling resulted in some very trying times. It was then that I realized what you so wonderfully elucidated in this blog post: the poor, the working class, and the “middle middle” class tend to be the true salt of the earth. But then, I suppose this old atheist forgot what the local preacher used to say in our church every Sunday, now didn’t he? Well, I’m off to safer URLs where they talk about relatavistic effects on electrons, and that sort of thing. I hope SciAm doesn’t make a habit of emotionally shocking its readers who expect to be lulled into this sort of bland objective outlook where everything is emotionally tidy :) Well, I suppose I should have known from the picture of yourself that you chose to identify your blog with that it was going to be an extremely intense read! It’s not exactly the valerian root of blogs. Um, no, it sure as heck isn’t.

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  2. 2. Sanpinn 5:40 am 09/10/2011

    I fail to see how the title, “Money Can Buy Isolation”, relates to what seems to be the focus of the article – that being, the debate as to whether or not money can bring one “happiness.”

    Certainly, one can isolate oneself from the rest of society – but isolation can be accomplished with or without a great deal of money. Conversely, I’m not debating that the title, “Money Can Buy Isolation” is not correct – money certainly can buy a fortress within which one could isolate oneself. It just escapes me what ‘money buying isolation’ has to do with whether or not money can bring one happiness.

    Now – on to the content of your article. It approaches the subject with the presumption that only money can bring happiness, and the richer one gets, the happier one gets – without even the consideration of the fact that the Almighty Buck is not necessarily a prerequisite for everyone in order for them to accomplish the state of “happiness.” The very definition of ‘happiness’ is that it implies a state of pleasure that results from the attainment of what one considers good; and as such, is a very individualistic choice. Subsequently, it cannot be assumed that money brings happiness to everyone – because if all it takes is money to make one happy, they are shallow indeed. You know, take time to smell the roses, and all that.

    In looking for reasons why; after an attainment of a certain level of financial wealth, happiness diminishes – it surprised me that you failed to mention the obvious: that truly living life consists of far more than simply achieving a high level of financial wealth. If just becoming rich is the goal, the alleged enjoyment ends when you’re rich. The enjoyment of the money continues with what you do with the money – particularly through altruistic endeavors by using your wealth to buy things that will serve to help those in society who are not financially-advantaged. There are many stories out there about wealthy folks whose benevolence serves to make a change for countless numbers of people who are less fortunate; which rewards the wealthy one.

    Your propensity throughout the article to refer to a subset within our society as “lower class” is extraordinarily offensive; if not outright discriminatory. You should have learned by now that the level of one’s financial wealth does not make for a better or lesser individual. And, if you haven’t noticed by now, by preceding the word “wealth” with the word “financial”, I am insinuating that there is more than one form of wealth. To truly comprehend that concept though, one has to correlate “wealth” with possessions other than money; and eliminate the equations of: “lots of money = higher class” , and “very little money = lower class”.

    Your bit about “lower class” people being able to read other’s emotions better than “higher class” people is not only condescending, again; it is assumptive in assigning the fact that “lower-class” people are less-educated. First, you say they are “lower class” because they’re not wealthy financially …. then, you say they’re “lower class” because they have a lower level of education. Neither is an equation that is reliably accurate – all the way across the board – all the time. However, you are on target there about “higher class” people not being very good at recognizing other’s emotions – because simply by default, if an individual sees themselves as being better than the rest just because they have a lot more money, then they don’t really care enough about the “lower-class” to bother even looking at them; much less reading their emotions. As well, I do not agree that “richer and more educated people lack empathy.” People are either empathetic or they’re not – and no amount of money – large or small – will alter that kind of characteristic.

    In defense of “rich people” whom you say are “not typically very generous because they are not empathetic” is just plain erroneous. What do you think “Philanthropists” are all about?

    Your statement about the “social disconnect that seems to accompany riches makes you appreciate the ways in which your family’s lack of riches “might” be making you happy” is very telling. It would behoove you to take a closer look inside there, because by using the word “might”, you didn’t convince me that your family’s lack of riches is making you happy. You said it might be – you’re not really certain.

    I don’t know if you are aware of this or not, but there are countless families in this country – and abroad – that don’t even own one car; so endeavor to consider yourself blessed for owning the one car. Not to mention the numbers of single mothers who are out there, raising children by themselves – and, if it’s possible for you to fathom – without the advantage of a car! If the greatest challenge you have for the week is the “one-car problem”, I’m sure there are lots of folks out there who would be willing to trade places with you. Did it ever occur to you that by coordinating carpooling, you could embrace that as an opportunity to foster a sense of community amongst your group? The things that you describe regarding interactive activities should not be an exception to the rule – they should always be happening in a society that is united together. A sense of community is something that a majority of our neighborhoods in America today are sadly lacking; and no one seems to want to take the initiative to foster it, or to strive to change things for the better. One person can make a difference to get things going; and the sooner each one of us believes that,
    we can all participate in bringing America back to the country I grew up in. If it takes a phone call to remind yourself that you have friends, then you didn’t really share a friendship to begin with; in the true sense of the word “friend.”

    The first two sentences in your closing paragraph make no sense whatsoever – and, again – are derogatory towards what you refer to as “lower-class individuals.” Who the heck do you think you are to refer to people as “lower-class individuals”? And where do you get the notion that “lower-class individuals” are more likely to get stuck in negative moods & suffer from mood disorders? I didn’t observe your medical professional credentials in your byline to indicate that you are qualified to make such an evaluation. And, it’s not news that people benefit from forming close social bonds – it’s a ‘given’; in the world I come from.

    In closing, I’m very willing to hear a response from you regarding what I’ve put forth here; and I am open to listening to what you have to say. I found your article so offensive and so riddled with inaccuracies, that I actually have taken an hour to respond to it. It is the fifth or sixth article that I have read recently that has not been up to Scientific American’s former standards. I understand that the views you expressed are not necessarily those of Scientific American; but there was a time in the not-too-distant-past, when they would never have even allowed such … well, I’ll be polite and call it “stuff” – to be printed under their umbrella. I think this article is the one that broke the proverbial camel’s back for me – the one that is the tipping point for my decision to cancel my long-time subscription with Scientific American.

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