Are the poor happier?

By Ed Cohen | Fall 2012

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Matt Bloom's answer is an emphatic "no."

In a chapter he’s written for a forthcoming book on the Catholic Social Teaching imperative of showing a preference for the poor, Bloom, an associate professor of management, condemns what he calls the “romanticized notion” that poverty somehow frees people “to pursue things that really matter.”

He says studies the world over have shown that people living below the poverty line are much less happy than those whose income or wealth places them above that line. The reason is simple enough: It’s almost impossible to be happy when you cannot afford the necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter for yourself and your loved ones.

The author of an article on a century of compensation research for the Handbook of Organizational Behavior (Spring 2009), Bloom traces the poverty-happiness misperception to several likely sources.

One is the popular belief among the non-rich that money can’t buy happiness. This adage seems to be borne out by studies showing that the wealthy are, at most, only somewhat happier than the average person but much happier than the poor.

Another reason why people imagine that the poor might be happier is a misquoted biblical admonition about money being the root of all evil. The actual warning, from 1 Timothy, is that a love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil.

The idea that poverty clears the mind to focus on more important, perhaps spiritual concerns probably comes from the common perception of monastic life. Clergy often take vows of poverty or simplicity, and, as Bloom’s research confirms, they also often report high levels of job satisfaction.

But they have chosen that lifestyle, not had it forced upon them. And their so-called poverty is different from that experienced by the overwhelming majority of the world’s poor. They don’t have to worry about food, clothing or shelter. Their religious order typically provides those necessities.