Does a Recession Make us Less Compassionate?

Does having more make us happier? Or does it just make us want more? As Ed Begley Jr. says in our new book, Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World: “If stuff made us happy there would be nothing but happy people living in Bell Air and unhappy people living in Fiji where they have nothing, but I have been to Fiji and there are plenty of happy people there. I have never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top!”

We were having tea with our good friend Marc Barasch, and discussing the relationship of wealth to alturism. He is the author of many books, but his latest, The Compassionate Life, got us questioning whether a lack of money or a failing economy, such as during a recession, makes us more selfish and self-centered. Marc suggested we reverse the question: “Perhaps we should be asking: Are people really compassionate in a so-called successful economy? Does affluence make us any kinder or more caring?”

We tend to think that as the rich have a cushier life they have more to give, but Jungian psychologist Bernice Hill has identified four wounds of wealth, or four challenges that come from having a lot of money. They are:

1. Burdens of Expectation. People with money are the often subject of envy and jealousy. They are also expected to support charities and donate frequently. Which can result in them asking if it is them or their money that is wanted?

2. Isolation. For fear of being taken advantage of, the wealthy may question what their friendships are based on. This can lead to a real sense of isolation and lack of trust, and the tendency to only socialize with others who also have money.

3. Unhealthy Family Dynamics. Money easily destroys relationships and families, as family members fight for the lion’s share.

4. Crisis of Identity. Wealthy people often have difficulties with issues of self-worth, guilt, and meaninglessness.

These four challenges imply to us how complicated and limiting wealth can be. While compassion tends to arise from a sense of vulnerability, success often comes with a sense of invulnerability. There is the belief that, if we are well-off materially, then God must be favoring us, we must be virtuous and moral; whereas if we are poor, then God has abandoned us, we must have done something wrong, we are obviously immoral and flawed.

Yet, when we have nothing to lose we are not guarded or fearful of being taken advantage of. As such, the poor are often far more generous, willing to share, and caring of each other than are the wealthy.

Whenever we have traveled in India, Deb has always been impressed that even the poorest of the poor have fresh flowers in their hair, they are welcoming and sharing of what they have, guests get the best dishes and food, even the best bed. This is far more hospitable than our wealthy friends who, for instance, when asked if we could stay, say they have a dinner party coming up and so it would be too inconvenient.

Compassion also arises out of a sense of shared humanity–the realization that we are all connected to everyone and everything at all times, that we are not isolated or separate. What happens to one happens to all. With this awareness we can take off our armor and allow ourselves to be touched and to feel the undefended heart. The barriers between us dissolve.

If we relate to the recession or poverty with fear, then it will close us down further, locking us into a place of isolation. If we relate to those same difficulties with an open heart, then we will enter into a culture of greater sharing and compassion. Our economy is built on greed and a fear of scarcity. But we can transcend these by reaching out to each other in acts of kindness and caring.


Howard C.
.6 years ago

Wealth is relative, a poor person living in Europe or the US may well have a far higher standard of living than a person doing quite well for themselves in Africa. When I visited The Gambia I was told that 'rich people' ate chicken and chips everyday! No one should feel pressured to give anything that they don't want to, if they are so shallow that they are that concerned but what others think of them then maybe they should use some of their money to get help with this. I give what I can, when times are harder (as they are now) I can't give as much in terms of value but I still give what I feel I can afford to give to help those who have less than I do.

Emmajade G.
.7 years ago

I think you are who you are and will react to wealth or poverty based on your own mindset. I know a lot of happy people who have tons of money. Ditto those who are poor.

What articles such as this convey is that we shouldn't assume being wealthy will equate to happiness, but that's ambiguous reasoning. It will almost always be better to be rich and unhappy than poor and unhappy because, with money, options exist that are denied to those who are poor.

This, to me, is sounder reasoning.

Robert O.
Robert O7 years ago

I agree especially where it was stated: "...As such, the poor are often far more generous, willing to share, and caring of each other than are the wealthy." Wealthier people put way too much emphasis on status and status symbols and are unhappier. Maybe that's why they have to look down on the poor since they feel so bad about themselves they look to put down others in order to build themselves up. So sad..and pathetic.

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Koo J.
greenplanet e8 years ago

I have often found that people who have less (money and material stuff) have more in other ways (sharing, humor, compassion).

I think the recession could make many people more compassionate, and if humanity shifts their priorities away from a commodity-consumer society, life may actually become richer and more worthwhile in other ways.

Living in a commodity-consumer society is actually pretty depressing.

Randy Paynter
Randy Paynter8 years ago

When we feel threatened, it's human nature / defense mechanism to "be selfish"... but as your travels through India indicate, the perception of fear has little to do with finances... fear, gratitude, compassion etc... are all just manifestations of our beliefs, values, perceptions, and physical state, not finances.... of course, most of us are not so enlightened as to be able to see past our bank statement ;)

That said, in more practical terms, I think recessions actually make people more compassionate for the "shared connection" and "vulnerability" reasons you state above.. but by some measures, it may look to be the reverse. For example, donations to nonprofits are far down this year... I don't think that necessarily indicates less overall compassion, but rather shifting priorities and different ways of showing compassion.

Interesting topic. Thanks for the post!