Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Someone Else Needs This Money More Than I Do"

"A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart." - Jonathan Swift

            Last week, two of my friends and I got into a semi-heated argument about taxes, politics, and money. I was at first quiet and uninterested, but then one of my friends asked me for my thoughts. I think conversations about money tend to get heated and controversial often, and for the most part, I don't find it necessary to talk about it. We were discussing whether it's unfair that the wealthy are taxed a lot more, and if it's justifiable to give out free money to the poor. They made the same arguments I always here, and I countered with some personal stories. Though semi-heated, the discussion still remained respectful and thoughtful, and it struck in me a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately - what affect money has on us and why. 

            During our conversation, I argued in favor of how hard poor people work for so little, but I also understand it’s not entirely fair for the wealthy to get taxed so much. What struck me during our conversation is a thought I’ve always lived with concerning wealth: If you have the money to live comfortably and have plenty leftover, why wouldn’t you give it to those in dire need of it? I don’t think people should be forced to give, but if you have such an excess of money, then why wouldn’t you want to help feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, help end cancer, or help any other beneficial cause in the world?

            I’m not now, nor have I ever been wealthy, but I’ve had all my needs met all my life. I actually grew up thinking I was middle class until I got to college and realized my family and I have lived under the poverty level my whole life, their whole lives, and for generations before them. I’ve always been taught that I have much, because my parents had truly grown up poor. My mom and her siblings would roam the streets playing a game their mom invented – who could find the most change on the ground? They would gather together pennies, nickels, and on the rare chance quarters, just to afford beans and milk. My parents have told me stories of dumpster diving for food, sharing one pair of shoes among siblings, going to school barefoot, sleeping in a van, dropping out of school to work to help pay for rent and food. With everything they've told me of their lives, they still say there are people who have had less and go through worse. I, in no way, have ever had to live the way my parents did, which is why I can’t see myself as poor or ever having been poor.

            Instead, I was taught that I have a lot, and not just in monetary value. I have two parents who love me and have cared for me greatly. I have the support of my entire family. I have great friends. I have always had a roof over my head, and never gone to sleep hungry. Regardless of how much gratitude my parents have tried to instill in me, this week has been a huge reminder of how easily money can influence anyone.

            I just moved into my first place with a roommate, and I’m so proud and happy. During the past year, I’ve taken my parents advice to save a certain amount of money so that I could afford to settle in comfortably. I’m proud that I saved more than my goal. I’m proud not only that I worked hard for it, but that I budgeted carefully in order to reach that goal. I’m also proud of how I handle and manage my money.

            Now that I have to pay rent for the first time in my life, I’ve been keeping an even more careful watch of my money, and I’ve noticed a few things about the way I’ve been viewing and treating it. For one, I spend a whole lot more time thinking about it, which isn’t necessarily stressful, but also isn’t too much fun. I spend roughly half my time now, or more, thinking about money – how much I got in tips, am I meeting my weekly monetary goals, how much can I spend on myself, costs for bills and rent, costs for everything I still need for the new apartment, gas, food, etc.

            After that money talk with my friends last week, I felt like I had just gotten a huge smack to the face. I was thinking about people with a lot of money and how they should give what they have. Yet here I am, after saving all this money, with money left over for an emergency and an upcoming trip, and still able to spend a lot on all the new things for my new place, and I hadn’t even thought about giving any of it away. When I let the thought come into my head that I probably should give some of it, my first immediate thought was, “No. I worked hard for that money, budgeting, and picking up shifts, so that I could spend it on myself. It’s my money.” I’m not saying you should give your savings away. Savings are important. But as I save more and manage my money better, I feel more entitled to it and what I use it for.

            Social psychologist Paul Piff conducted an experiment in which he had a pedestrian try to cross the street on a crosswalk in California, where cars are legally required to stop for pedestrians. He recorded the scenario of hundreds of cars over several days. His finding was that, “The more expensive the car, the less likely the driver was to stop for the pedestrian… None of the drivers in the least-expensive-car category broke the law. Close to 50 percent of drivers in the most-expensive-car category did, simply ignoring the pedestrian on the side of the road.” The people with more expensive cars felt more entitled to the road.

            For a whole year, I didn’t buy myself much more than I needed, except for books, because c’mon. With a new apartment, I’ve had the opportunity to spend money on myself again, and a lot of it actually. I’ve discovered I’m willing to spend about $800 on a new bed (includes mattress and bed frame – a super cute one I might add), but I didn’t want to give anything to the homeless guy holding a sign at the freeway exit. I was pretty ashamed of myself. I make an honest attempt to give whenever I can. I’m glad that my job as a server allows me to always carry cash in my wallet. Another weird thing I've noticed about myself is that the more I keep track of my spending and look at the numbers, the less I want to give away. It’s not that I can’t afford to give any of it away, because I can definitely spare cash here and there. It’s that I just don’t want to. Like, the thought of giving away my money hurts, and that thought didn’t hurt before.

            It’s mostly common knowledge that poor people are more generous than rich people, but Piff has some statistics to prove how much more. In another study conducted by Piff, he gave rich and poor members of a community $10 each and told them they could keep the money or share some of it with a stranger. The results showed, “The participants who made under $25,000, and even sometimes $15,000, gave 44% more to the stranger than those making $150,000 to $200,000 per year.” A different study showed similar findings while looking at how much different households earn and give: “On average, households that earned $50,000 to $75,000 gave of 7.6 percent of their income to charity, while those who made make $100,000 or more gave 4.2 percent.” This same study also found that wealthy people who lived in wealthy neighborhoods gave less to charity than those who lived in more diverse neighborhoods, “in ZIP codes where more than 40 percent of people made more than $200,000 a year, the average rate of giving was just 2.8 percent.”

            On the surface, it really doesn’t make sense that people with more money would give less, but I also understand why that might be. My parents have instilled in me an awareness of the needs and sufferings of other, and that has brought about compassion. I’m aware of what I have and what others don’t, because I see it and have been shown it, and that makes me feel more compelled to give. So, it makes sense that when people live in an area with other wealthy people, they wouldn’t be as compelled to give. On a day to day basis, they see wealth, not poverty. This allows them to be ignorant, and also makes it easier for them to turn a blind eye to something that's not right in front of them. It’s harder to ignore something when you’re surrounded by it.

            Piff says, “As a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases.” Poor people are more compassionate, empathetic, and have greater emotional intelligence than rich people. They are exposed to the needs of others constantly, while also having plenty needs of their own. In Carolyn Gregoire’s article, “How Money Changes The Way We Think And Behave,” she says, “people of lower economic status were better at reading others’ facial expressions — an important marker of empathy — than wealthier people.” Again, this has to do with the social environments the different classes find themselves in. Lower classes depend on each other a lot more in various ways, while the upper class can support themselves. The lower class environment fosters empathy and compassion, because they need it to support each other and themselves. The upper class environment fosters individualism and competition, which creates a lack of empathy and compassion.

            Even though I’ve lived under the poverty line my whole life, have been taught humbleness and gratitude, and have been shown a lot about true poverty, I still find it surprising how the addiction to money can so easily creep up on me. It’s not just that I’m less willing to give and feel more entitled to my money, it’s also such a good feeling to get money and have it, that I find myself wanting to continue that good feeling. It's pleasurable to use my excel worksheets to input how much I got in tips and paychecks every week. It's so rewarding to put money in the bank, see my savings grow, and try to earn as much money in tips as I can. I’m not, nor have I ever been, a money-motivated person, but research shows handling and acquiring money lights up a lot of activity in the brain.

            Gregoire says that the pursuit of money can be a compulsive and addicting behavior. She cites Psychologist Dr. Tian Dayton, who explains the compulsive need to acquire money is known as process addictions, or “behavioral addictions.” He says, “Process addictions are addictions that involve a compulsive and/or an out of control relationship with certain behaviors… [it] can kick start the release of brain/body chemicals, like dopamine, that actually produce a “high” that’s similar to the chemical high of a drug.” Acquiring money can become addictive, and it’s also correlated with a higher susceptibility to addiction problems. 

            In a weird little experiment done in China, and replicated many times elsewhere, one group of students was asked to count money, and another was asked to count blank paper. Then both groups were asked to put their fingers in a bowl of hot water to rate how uncomfortable it felt. The students who had been counting money rated the water as less hot and uncomfortable than those who counted paper. The people who handled money felt less pain, which I’m speculating is because dopamine helps mask pain.

            Another finding of the experiment showed that those who counted money said they felt stronger afterward. I think this has to do with the empowerment we feel with money. I’ve never used the word strong to describe the way money makes me feel, but I think it’s an accurate word for the way I feel after a day of good tips and going home with a lot of cash in my wallet. Having money makes us feel powerful, which any game of Monopoly can attest to.

            It feels good to have money, make money, and spend money. It activates pleasure regions in the brain, which we attribute to happiness. Even though getting money can release a “high,” it makes people no happier than drugs do. Gregoire says that there is no direct correlation with income and happiness. After we make enough to take care of our needs and relieve financial stress, extra money doesn’t do anything to promote well-being, and can in fact harm it. “Some data has suggested money itself doesn’t lead to dissatisfaction — instead, it’s the ceaseless striving for wealth and material possessions that may lead to unhappiness. Materialistic values have even been linked with lower relationship satisfaction,” says Gregoire.

            I don’t for one instant believe that money itself is evil, nor are the people who have more of it. I do believe it is too easy too abuse, and it has a great effect on us. I also believe that the thing you spend the most time thinking about and trying to pursue is what has the strongest hold and influence in your life. For me, I never want that thing to be money. After a church sermon this past Sunday, coincidentally about money, I realized I had to take an honest look at the way I view money now, and the way I should. I’ve actually never put much thought into money (aside from being generous with it), because I never had much of it. At this past week’s sermon, my pastor, who I highly respect for his intelligence, understanding, compassion, and knowledge of the word of God, was talking about tithing – giving 10% of your earnings to the church and/or charity.

            My dad, and even some of my uncles, have always talked about tithing as a bad thing. Many people have expressed complaint at being asked to give 10% of their money, and I understand why many wouldn’t want to. But, my pastor made a very good point. He revealed that even if x number of people gave 10%, then there would be x amount of money for those in need (I forgot his exact numbers, but they were high and impressive). It really made me think about how I manage my money. I put aside money in the bank for bills, rent, and other important things, and keep what’s leftover as cash in my wallet. That cash is my only spending money, and I try very hard to not use my card after the cash is spent.

            I usually try to be generous with my spending money – giving a few dollars here and there to homeless people, always tipping baristas, servers, and the guys who clean my car at the car wash. But when my spending money runs out, then I have nothing to give. So, I thought to myself, if I could put aside money to move into an apartment, buy a brand new bed, and have spending money leftover, then I can definitely try to put aside 10% of my income that will go solely to giving. For me, it doesn’t have to be to the church, but I always give to the church, too. I just know that if I can afford to buy all the things I need with money leftover, then I can afford to help someone else with greater needs than my own. Now, I put aside 10% of my tips as soon I as I get it, and I don't bother adding it all up. I don't want this to be an obligatory thing that makes me think, "that's money I could've spent on myself." I just want to know that I'm making the effort to give, and equally important, I'm making the effort to not let money have control over me.

            Thinking back to the discussion I had with my friends last week, I just wonder what kind of person I would be if I was ever wealthy enough to be taxed so highly. Would I complain about how much money the government was taking from my hard earned profits? Possibly. But I also hope that regardless of taxes and my income that I would be generous. I’m not the kind of person who needs a lot of things, except for my own space with books and a place to write – those things are important to me. And wifi, because I'm a millennial and I don't how to function without it. I was raised with the mentality, "Be thankful for what you have," and "Someone else needs this more than I do." This is a mentality that is easier for poor people to have, because the more you have, the more you want. When you have nothing, you’re grateful for every little thing that comes your way. The easiest way to be generous is to be satisfied and content with what you already have. If it isn’t enough for you, it will be so much harder for you to give anything.

            Out of all of Piff’s studies and findings, the ones that give me the most hope are these: Even though wealth perpetuates self-interest and entitlement while lowering feelings of compassion and empathy, “Simply reminding wealthy individuals of the benefits of cooperation or community can prompt them to act just as egalitarian as poor people.” Piff says just a small nudge is needed to restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy. Also, even though lower class people have greater emotional intelligence, he says, “if upper-class participants were told to imagine themselves in the position of lower-class people, it boosted their ability to detect other people’s emotions, counteracting the blinders-like effect of their wealth.” This indicates that money doesn’t have to have the only or greatest effect on us. It’s something you can abuse and let control you, or it’s something you can use to help others. With everything I’ve shared with you during this post, I hope you’ve realized something – I’m nudging you.


1 comment:

  1. Lots of truth in this post. It's all about understanding. Once someone loses understanding of who they are and what their identity is apart from money, they lose their ability to relate and empathize with those who do not have any, when really we are all human beings with the same needs and emotions. When people choose to hold onto their money rather than the hand of their fellow brother or sister in need, they have chosen to cut themselves off from something that can truly give them satisfaction, and instead they cling to something that will keep them in bondage for the rest of their lives, never satisfied nor fulfilled.