According to a recent survey, happiness, in the long run, has surprisingly little relation to economic status. On average, the rich are a little happier, but for most, happiness and feelings of optimism and well-being are just as positive for those at the bottom of the economic ladder as for those at the very top. Financial windfalls, such as from lottery winnings, provide few positive long-term effects, and the rich depicted on over-the-top TV shows like the Real Housewives, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and MTV Cribs, often lead unhappy, or at least vacuous, lives.
This was not new to me. Shortly after our high school years, I was in Philadelphia’s Chinatown looking in a store window. Those were the days when Arch and Race Streets were Philadelphia’s skid row. Next to the store window was an alleyway where two winos were talking. One was loudly explaining to the other that someone owed him five dollars, and if he only could get it, he would be on “Easy Street.” Hmmm, I thought. I have more than five dollars right now in my pocket, so I am already on Easy Street. I just didn’t realize it. But if the wino ever did get his money it would be gone by the end of the day, and he would have lost the shimmering mirage of Easy Street to sustain him week after week.
On the other end of the spectrum, I know a retired CEO who, for me, is the definition of wealth. When he moves to his Delaware summer beach house from his Florida winter home, a hired company sets up potted plants inside and out, maintains them throughout the summer, then takes them away again at the end of the season. Pretty nice. He and his wife are happy, but not because of perks like the plants. They are just nice people involved with family and friends and would be happy whatever their circumstances.
On CBS News, Diane Sawyer had a recent segment on the plight of the middle class. The segment showed a husband and wife who both lost their jobs and were struggling to hold things together. They were so ashamed of their situation, they would only permit being shown in silhouette. As they were talking, the woman began to cry, saying she felt they were sinking in a downward spiral. But in the background, I could see they were living in a new house with expensive furniture, much better than mine, not that I would want to trade. I wanted to tell her she may well lose much of what she has, but eventually everything will be alright. A drop in economic status is upsetting while it is happening, but humans are adaptable. She, too, will adapt to a lower status, and will someday look back and wonder why money and the fancy house were ever so important to her. She may, or may not, become a better person for the experience, but that will be up to her.
Our pastor at our Easter service mentioned with sympathy that many members of the congregation were hurting financially this year, and I was surprised by his response. Would they be better off spiritually by continuing to live in McMansions and driving their Belchfire Eights? Maybe God is trying to tell them something. If I were pastor, I would admonish them to get with it, stop whining, and embrace their new opportunity for spiritual insight. Re-read the Old Testament with new understanding. If you want more money, go watch Cramer. As Lao-Tsu said a few thousand years ago, “When the heart weeps for what is lost, the spirit laughs for what is found.” The worst that may happen is that their standard of living drops back to what we experienced as normal in the 1950s, which wasn’t so bad.
Of course, that is why I am not a pastor. But I am an expert on adapting. Aging is a great teacher of this. And we get better and better at it.