While working in a homeless centre over Christmas, I had a curious déja-vu moment. Contrasting the joyful camaraderie of the volunteers and guests with the loneliness many people feel during the season, I recalled a conversation from many years before, on a West African patio.
I was a PhD student, plodding away on my field research, and staying with a friend on the outskirts of Abidjan. One night, we were drinking ice-water on his dimly-lit terrace, land crabs scurrying in the shadows of the encroaching rainforest at the edge of his yard. One of his brothers had stopped in to say hello. Having spent some time studying in France and Canada, he began regaling us with his tales from the mysterious lands he had explored.
One, recounted like an odyssey into an eerie jungle, told of a time he was walking down a Paris street and heard a faint voice above. Looking up, he saw an elderly woman leaning out a window, asking for help. Puzzled, he wondered if she was calling to someone else. However, when he looked around and saw everyone going about their business, he walked up the stairs to her flat.
All she wanted was help opening a tin of sardines. Yet when he happily obliged, she burst into tears, overcome by this stranger’s act of kindness. For an African, the very notion that an old woman would be alone and helpless — ‘I can’t wait to grow old!’ he exclaimed, detailing all the privileges of seniority in African societies — was incomprehensible. ‘That’ remarked his more taciturn brother, ‘is what happens when a society grows too rich.’
My friends weren’t romanticising poverty. Quite the opposite, they expressed a yearning admiration for Western prosperity. They simply recognised that on the journey to development, you have to shed some of the family silver. They had put their fingers on one of the dilemmas of development.
Such dilemmas have bedevilled scholars for generations. Basic economic theory assumes that more is better than less. Forty years ago, the economist Richard Easterlin decided to measure this. Observing the dramatic gains in Western prosperity since the end of the Second World War, he set out to measure how much happier they’d made us all. He was startled to discover that even though average per capita incomes had risen fourfold, there was no discernible increase in average levels of contentment. Since then, despite periodic criticism, the Easterlin thesis has stood the test of time, and remains one of the enigmas of economics.
It surprises none of us who know the rat-race to learn that there appears to be such a thing as over-earning. Research in psychology has uncovered a syndrome in which people who have satisfied their material needs, and so could downshift at work, instead ramp up out of an obsessive pursuit of higher earnings. In part, this restless acquisitiveness may be driven by the other side of the so-called Easterlin paradox. While Easterlin found no increase in the overall happiness of the society, it did appear that at the level of the individual, when people grew richer relative to their peers, their happiness rose. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would have attributed this to a will to power – namely, that as people gain power relative to others, their sense of purpose and contentment follows.
However, this may be one of those cases in which a natural drive becomes so obsessive and dysfunctional that it ultimately makes us miserable. Like hunger or thirst, what we need for life might also have the capacity to destroy us. If, in the pursuit of riches, we do like a distance-runner and put our head down, ignoring everything going around us to focus laser-like on our destination, we can lose sight of both the scenery and everyone else in the race.
I lived in Jamaica for nearly two decades, during much of which I taught at the country’s principal university. There, I encountered many students oppressed by poverty and injustice, some living amid extreme violence. Under enormous pressure from their families to succeed and lift them from poverty, they dealt with extreme stress, and no small number suffered from post-traumatic stress disorders. Yet tellingly, depression and resignation were rare. Although exhausted by the obstacles, my students were too preoccupied with overcoming them to stop fighting.
When I returned to teach in the developed world, though, in France, Canada and here in Britain, I came across something quite different: students whose every material need was and would be met, but who were struggling with anxiety, depression and what might be called existential angst – a sense of worthlessness.
My Jamaican students didn’t suffer from a lack of meaning. They were too burdened with the responsibility of living. They didn’t lack human connection, if anything they had too much of it. I couldn’t help but think how much better off we’d all be if my Third-World students had a bit more money, and my Western ones just a bit less. That might have prompted them to seek more of the sort of connection the volunteers in the Crisis centre experienced..
Maybe my Ivoirian friend was right. Maybe there was such a thing as becoming too rich.
Image: Lefkada, Greece