Wealth and Empathy

Wealth and Empathy

Did you give away money last year? And if so, how much money did you spend on behalf of others? Was it enough?

The questions are not meant to induce guilt. In addition to being relevant during tax season, the answers also speak to your own happiness.

As the old adage goes, money can’t buy happiness. But we know it can buy generosity. And generosity, it turns out, can buy happiness.

I’ve written before about the relationship between happiness and money, and the restorative power of generosity. Research continues to pile up supporting the notion that money has a diminishing power to create happiness, and at some level makes no difference at all.

In a recent article in the New Republic, the author Michael Lewis, who has spent a good part of his career chronicling the world of the superrich, explores the inverse relationship between wealth and empathy. He makes the provocative but defensible view that wealth can have a degrading or corrupting effect on the soul.

He cites research by University of California, Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, who compared the everyday behavior of the rich to that of the poor.

“As you move up the class ladder you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others,” Keltner said. “Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results.”

Lewis also pointed to a survey that shows wealthier people give a smaller percentage of their income to charity than people considered poor. Evidence is mounting that spending money on others brings happiness in a way that acquiring more money does not. So why aren’t the wealthiest among us giving away more?

Good question. A mentality of scarcity is what causes us to hoard wealth, and probably leads some wealthy people to develop an attitude of entitlement. This frame of mind is driven by a fear of losing money and a desire to accumulate more, more money for the sake of more money.

The more wholesome mindset that we preach is one of stewardship. A steward of wealth treats money like a powerful tool for good. Rather than hoard wealth, a steward channels it. Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation are among the most visible examples of good stewardship in our community.

It turns out the growing wealth gap is not only bad for the poor, it’s bad for the wealthy too. Closing that gap, on the other hand, makes everyone happy.

John Christianson
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