If you think the pursuit of happiness is essentially a private affair, then recent research findings regarding the impact of inequality will make a hash of your most cherished beliefs. A Greater Good article summarizing the research on inequality points out that people are happiest and most compassionate in countries with the least inequality. And it’s not the poor who are short on compassion, but the wealthy. People who are significantly wealthier than others, it turns out, are not only less generous but also more apt to drive over hapless pedestrians who find themselves in a crosswalk when the wealthy come barreling down the street. People who are given an obvious advantage in games of monopoly still think they are brilliant and deserving when they win. Food for thought.
A.O. Scott has an article about recent movies celebrating luxury goods, which offers an explanation of some of the behaviors we have seen in our research. Scott doesn’t offer any of the knee-jerk judgments about materialism that we are all prone to, at the same time that we feel the lure of beautiful things. Holding back the judgment is undoubtedly key to defining and building structure around what we want and may not be able to afford. The piece also reminded me of the work of Daniel Miller, who has studied the meanings of our stuff for a long time and concludes that the ability to find meaning in things is strongly connected to our ability to find meaning in relationships to other people. In The Comfort of Things, he writes “All my academic studies have shown that the people who successfully forge meaningful relationships to things are often the same as those who forge meaningful relationships with people, while those who fail at one usually also fail at the other, because the two are much more akin and entwined than is commonly appreciated.”