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Opinion

Do the Poor Have More Meaningful Lives?

By Adam Alter

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Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.

Jonathan Safran Foer, in the first chapter of “Eating Animals,” recounts a conversation he once had with his grandmother, in which she described the combination of fear and hunger that haunted her in Eastern Europe as the Second World War drew to a close. When she became so hungry that she couldn’t imagine living through another day, a kind Russian farmer gave her a piece of meat:

“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“Why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“Of course.”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Shigehiro Oishi, a University of Virginia psychologist who studies well-being, pointed to this passage when I e-mailed him last week to discuss a paper he wrote, with Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, which will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science. In the paper, Oishi and Diener found that people from wealthy countries were generally happier than people from poor countries. No surprise there. But they also found that people from poor countries tended to view their lives as more meaningful. Even Foer’s grandmother, impoverished and desperate, seems to have favored a meaningful, life-enriching religious tradition over immediate gratification.

Read the full article as published in The New Yorker.

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Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing with affiliated appointment in the Psychology Department.