The Myth of Poor and Happy : Part I

“Struggling to make ends meet is wearing me down”, I recently told a close friend.  I told him I craved security, that I wanted to loosen the god damn stranglehold of student loans, credit card debt, the expenses of daily living.  “Last week I took a friend to the movies and all three of my credit cards were denied.  It was humiliating”, I said sadly, truly embarrassed even as I recounted this story.  “I’m 35, I should have this stuff figured out by now.  I need for it to be figured out”.  

“True security and happiness”, my friend said, “are not found in material things.  They come from the inside, from finding security within the self”.  I love this friend and he is incredibly sensitive and wise.  He has been through a lot in his life, and has even spent an extended period of time in dire straits, but I wonder if perhaps he has lived in economic stability just long enough to have bought back into the myth that poverty is unrelated to happiness and well-being?  And can you really blame him?  Heck, I’m pretty sure the Dalai Lama would agree with his statement.  It is also the myth touted and propagated by self-help books and much of the positive psychology movement, both of which are well-meaning I believe, but fundamentally misguided.   Some days, it’s a myth I believe myself.  I remember once quoting Bukowski to my mom, saying “Nobody can save you but yourself”.  To which I believe she, quite understandably replied “Fuck you”.  The idea that money has nothing to do with happiness is a nice zen-like idea for those who are blessed with imperturbable mental health or inexhaustible resources, but for most of the world it just doesn’t pass the muster. Research does suggest that once basic needs have been met, well-being does not increase along with income, but we live in a complex world where basic needs have come to include not just food and water and shelter, but a cell phone, broadband Internet, access to a computer; where affordable access to housing is almost non-existent; where 2/3’s of jobs require post-secondary education.  In this world, to get one’s basic needs met is no cinch.  So for all the people who are not having their basic needs met, the correlation between well-being and income is strong and bidirectional. In short, poor people get sick (both mentally and physically) and sick people get poor.  

Firstly and critically, I should situate myself within the context of this discussion.  I am a caucasian cisgender woman who grew up in an affluent family.  I have had extensive help from my immediate family and my extended family.  I have completed two undergraduate and two graduate degrees.  I have studied and lived abroad in Japan, Spain, France, Arizona, Cuba.  None of these privileges comes cheap. I have spent most of my adulthood living at home with my mom, who has always made an effort to  have a house with an extra bedroom so we kids have a rent-free place to land.  My mom recently bailed me out of credit card debt and my sister paid for my medication last month.  I have fancy $85 Aritzia blanket scarves and fun toys like a smart typewriter.  I have had soooooooooo much help from my parents, my sister, my grandparents, and my aunt.  Sooooo much help.  And this is an understatement.   I am owning all the privilege that having this help suggests, because I want to paint an accurate picture both of how much I have struggled, as well as how much help I have received.  I am not a resident of the downtown eastside, nor am I a member of any marginalized group (except for the fact that I am a woman which means I make 87cents to every dollar made by a man, which by definition makes me a member of an economically marginalized group), however I can trace the link between my mental health and my bank account across my life. This is a thread that weaves its way through my adolescence and young adulthood like an unspooling ball of yarn, out of control and unpredictable. If this thread is so salient for me, in all my privilege, I can only imagine the way it affects people without a social safety net.

Like I said, poor people get sick and being sick is a risk factor for being poor.  How does this work?  There is so much to say, and much of what I will discuss comes from two sources .   My intention is not to write an academic article, so this post is not full of numbers or citations although a plethora of quantitative and qualitative data on the subject exists and you don’t have to go far to find it. My intention rather, is to wonder a little at the truth behind the myth, to suggest gateways through which the thinking mind can wander.