The Misconception That Poor People Are Happier


TACOMA, Washington — At least once in their lives, everyone has probably heard a version of the saying, “money can’t buy happiness.” Some even justify this by referencing the two billion people around the world who live in extreme poverty but still experience joy. When westerners visit impoverished communities, it is common to hear descriptions like “despite having so little, they were so happy.” Even some research supports the idea that a lower GDP can lead to a more fulfilled life. However, it isn’t a straightforward relationship. When addressing global poverty, the simplification that poor people are happier can be dangerous and undermine the harsh realities of the world’s poor. Although wealth isn’t correlated with happiness, neither is poverty.

Wealth and Happiness

On several occasions, research has shown that people living in poverty report lower life satisfaction, lower subjective well-being and lower levels of positive emotion. Even the World Happiness Index ranks the high-income countries as the happiest. Africa is home to the majority of the world’s poor and has the least happy countries. This contradicts the notion that poor people are happier.

The research found happiness related to wealth when comparing people with higher incomes with those of lower incomes. However, it also compared people living in high-income countries with those living in low-income countries. In a study involving 132 countries, researchers found that in order to have an average life satisfaction rating of five out of 10, people needed to make an average of $3,000 per year.

Wealth and Fulfillment

The same study also evaluated the levels of fulfillment that people with various income levels reported. It found that poorer people reported higher levels of meaning in their lives. While only 66% of people in wealthier nations reported having meaningful lives, this number rose to above 95% in impoverished countries. Although it may appear that this is to do with the money these people had, it may actually have more to do with religious faith. Only 25% of Europeans identify as highly religious compared with 90% of Africans. Additionally, even high-income African’s reported higher happiness levels than similar income Europeans.

Another study has shown that happiness and fulfillment are separate topics. While fulfilling immediate needs increases happiness, it doesn’t necessarily impact fulfillment. There are many ways human beings find meaning. In wealthier nations, people that are more philanthropic repeatedly report leading more meaningful lives. As it happens, solving global poverty benefits the life satisfaction of poor people as well as those who help them.

Addressing Global Poverty

Although money doesn’t buy happiness, it does buy basic necessities like food, safe water and shelter. Around 43% of the world can’t afford a healthy diet, two billion people lack access to safe water and more than 1.5 billion are homeless. Without these basic needs, it is unrealistic to suggest that poor people are happier.

The notion that poor people are happier is outdated and not supported by research. Although various cultures have various ways of measuring happiness, research shows that certain things are universally essential. Addressing global poverty requires that people consider basic necessities as human rights and not privileges. By respecting more human rights and providing solutions to global poverty, the world is essentially happier.

Beti Sharew
Photo: Unsplash


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