Streams of Consciousness

Streams of Consciousness

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Money Can Buy Isolation


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.

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

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