TOPICS > Economy

Finding the Connection Between Prosperity, Compassion and Happiness

June 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Usually, as a country's GDP goes up, that nation's well-being tends to rise as well. But for the last 35 years, as GDP has grown in the United States, Americans' average happiness hasn't increased. Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to researchers about how they study the connection between money and happiness.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, ask yourself, does having more money make us happy?

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman went in search of answers. It’s part of his ongoing reporting “Making Sen$e of Financial News.”

PAUL SOLMAN: The University of California at Berkeley, a key location for one of the hot new subfields in economics: happiness studies. But, despite living in the wealthiest economy in the history of the world, Americans are a surprisingly unhappy lot.

Christine Carter is a sociologist at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

CHRISTINE CARTER, University of California, Berkeley: Usually, what we see across countries is that, as GDP goes up, happiness goes up or subjective well-being tends to go up.

And the U.S. is kind of a notable case, in the sense that in the last 35 years as GDP has grown, we actually haven’t seen our average happiness level go up.

PAUL SOLMAN: We have been following this line of research for years, research that studies the psychological and physiological effects of growing economic inequality.

As economist Bob Frank in his 1999 book “Luxury Fever” wrote:

ROBERT H. FRANK, Author, “Luxury Fever”: Concern about position is a very deep-seated part of the human brain chemistry.

PAUL SOLMAN: So deep-seated that stressing over it can be harmful to your health, as British epidemiologist Michael Marmot wrote in his 2004 book “The Status Syndrome.”

MICHAEL MARMOT, Author, “The Status Syndrome”: Health and disease, the good and bad effects of where you are in the hierarchy, mediated by the efforts of chronic stress.

PAUL SOLMAN: And according to another British epidemiologist, Richard Wilkinson, in his 2011 book “The Spirit Level,” the greater the degree of economic inequality, the worse an entire nation’s welfare.

RICHARD WILKINSON, Author, “The Spirit Level”: Societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor do worse on a whole range of measures. They have worse health. They have more violence. They have more drug problems. Standards of child well-being are worse.

PAUL SOLMAN: But even if average happiness hasn’t risen, those atop the economy should be content, since they have prospered as never before.

Turns out they’re not happier either. So, how come?

JENNIFER STELLAR, University of California, Berkeley: The first thing I’m going to do is put on a respiration belt for you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Grad student Jennifer Stellar was about to measure the breathing of an upper-middle class guinea pig.

JENNIFER STELLAR: And this is to measure skin conductance.

PAUL SOLMAN: My sweating.

Is this like the lie-detector test?

JENNIFER STELLAR: It’s very similar.

PAUL SOLMAN: My heart rate.

This is like an EKG.

JENNIFER STELLAR: Yes, this is measuring your heartbeat.

PAUL SOLMAN: To get baseline readings, Stellar had me watch a mundane video about building a cement block wall. And then she hit me with this.

JENNIFER STELLAR: So you can start the video now.

GIRL: I’m 12 years old and I have neuroblastoma and I have been fighting it for seven years. It’s really, really serious. It’s a very rare cancer. PAUL SOLMAN: Stellar has run the experiment on hundreds of random people to test a hypothesis: that those of higher economic status feel less compassion than those lower down. And compassion turns out to be a key ingredient of welfare, of happiness.

Stellar’s mentor, Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, says the lab postulated that kids of higher and lower economic status experience the world in very different ways.

DACHER KELTNER, University of California, Berkeley: When you grow up in lower-class backgrounds and lower-class circumstances, there’s just more difficulty in your environment; there’s more unpredictability; there’s more risk; there are more threats.

And what we have learned from really interesting neuroscience is that humans, in the face of threat, connect to other people. And then complementarily, we thought, you know, if you grow up in a more privileged circumstance, you orient inwards to what’s inside of you. And those are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: In his own early work, Keltner found socioeconomic differences in the ability to read facial expressions.

DACHER KELTNER: Here’s anger, sadness. Here’s sympathy, or compassion.

PAUL SOLMAN: It turned out those lower down in the economy were better judges of emotional expressions, expressions rather more subtle than these.

DACHER KELTNER: So given what we found early, we developed a hypothesis that lower-class people should respond with more compassion when other people are suffering. They’re just paying more careful attention.

PAUL SOLMAN: Stellar’s experiments were the first to test the theory. And, indeed, lower-income subjects not only reported more compassion; their vital signs indicated they really meant it, especially their slower heart rates.

And that began to worry me. What if, true to my own socioeconomic status, but contrary to my self-image, my heart rate hadn’t slowed? Stellar tried to assuage me.

JENNIFER STELLAR: It’s not that upper-class individuals see someone who’s suffering and just they don’t care. It’s that they just maybe don’t notice in their environment that there are people around in need to the same extent as lower social class individuals.

RODOLFO MENDOZA-DENTON, University of California, Berkeley: Being lower in socioeconomic status is a two-sided coin. You get the risk, but you also get the protection.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rudy Mendoza-Denton also teaches psychology at Berkeley, studies the health effects of class differences. His lab looks for inflammation linked to a host of diseases. And, yes, corroborating Drs. Marmot and Wilkinson, it’s finding plenty among those lower down the class ladder.

RODOLFO MENDOZA-DENTON: You put a ladder on a piece of paper and you say, OK, relative to other people in the United States, where would you place yourself along these 10 rungs? And that measure has strong predictive effects for health.

PAUL SOLMAN: The higher up, you are …

RODOLFO MENDOZA-DENTON: The higher up you are, the better you are. It matters not only whether you are objectively wealthy or higher in social class, but how you feel relative to other people.

PAUL SOLMAN: So feeling low can mean greater stress, worse health, more unhappiness. But, says Mendoza-Denton, there’s a protective strategy. RODOLFO MENDOZA-DENTON: Being lower in social class almost by definition makes it so that you can’t control your outcomes. The way that people who are lower in social class cope with that is by relying on the things that they know they can expect to be there. And what do people know they can expect to be there? Their friends, their family, their community.

PAUL SOLMAN: So if I were lower on the economic totem pole, I wouldn’t be very happy, but supposedly I would be more connected to others.

And that got me to worrying. If test results showed me as uncompassionate, would that then brand me as a typical emotionally bankrupt prosperous American?

RODOLFO MENDOZA-DENTON: Regardless of the measure that you use to assess a particular state, or feeling, or attitude that you have, those attitudes can be changed.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, even though, subconsciously, I may not be as compassionate a person as I think I am, I can become that person?

RODOLFO MENDOZA-DENTON: There’s a very simple word that we all use and are familiar with, and it’s called learning.

CHRISTINE CARTER: For eons, we have thought of happiness as a personality trait, and it’s actually much more appropriate to think of it as a skill or a set of skills that we can teach ourselves and teach our children, that we can practice with them.

PAUL SOLMAN: More and more research confirms what they’re finding here at Berkeley, says Christine Carter, not that those who have less are happier, but that those who have and spend more are often just speeding up the happiness treadmill.

CHRISTINE CARTER: The wealthier you are, the more money you spend on stuff that increases your sense of what you need in life — and that can be a little bit of an addictive cycle that does not bring happiness. Likability and kindness and empathy, these are things that make you happy. They connect you to other people, and that’s the most important thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, enough theory. Let’s talk about me. I try to be likable, kind. Had the video provoked involuntary compassion, or hadn’t it?

Not initially, said Jennifer Stellar.

JENNIFER STELLAR: What we noticed is, the first time you watched it, you didn’t have a very strong physiological response.

PAUL SOLMAN: But in order to shoot this scene from more than one angle, I actually had to watch the video several times.

JENNIFER STELLAR: So, I looked at the second time you watched the video, and we found when you watched it that time that we saw a decrease in heart rate, which is what we tend to find when somebody is experiencing compassion.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the third time.

So maybe the more fortunate aren’t really less compassionate deep down. Or maybe you shouldn’t read much into one person’s first reaction.

Or I can think of one other possibility. If you’re really too compassionate, you will never rise into the upper class.

JENNIFER STELLAR: And that’s one of the things we will be able to test with our work. If you’re too compassionate, you won’t be able to be cutthroat enough make it to the top.

PAUL SOLMAN: For the sake of the American economy, let’s hope that isn’t the finding of further research here at the Greater Good Science Center.

RAY SUAREZ: And you can see more of Paul’s conversation with Christine Carter on our Making Sen$e page.

In his next story, Paul examines more about the psychology of wealth.