Monday, June 20, 2011

Lessons in Mediterranean

My wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to vacation on the Mediterranean for 3 weeks, traveling throughout Italy, Sicily, Spain, Palma, the south of France and Tunisia. With all the wonderful sights and places I experienced, it was the people I met along the way that made the most impression on me. It’s interesting that the real connection we make in our lives is always with people. As I walked through the streets of Barcelona Spain one beautiful sunny morning, a toothless women who was begging in the streets holding a used Starbucks cup came up to me and asked for money. She had a kind face and shared with me her smile while gesturing for money. As I reached in my pocket and put in her cup a 2 Euro coin, she stopped and blew me kisses of gratitude and thanks as I walked away. As I turned around as I moved forward, I saw that she was still blowing kisses my way and I found myself blowing a kiss back to her. I was moved by her sincerity and was also taken back by the emotion I was feeling with this brief encounter with this toothless beggar in the streets of Barcelona. What was this all about? Why was I moved? I realized that there is no connection like the connection between two people, no matter how brief or even seeming insignificant, nothing could match this. Throughout our trip, it was the people I met along the way that became embedded in my memory; the conversations about our lives, our differences and of course our similarities. From the toothless beggar in Barcelona to the generous merchant in Tunisia, who offered to arrange a home, and transportation at my next visit to his magical country, the connection two people can make is the real life changing episodes in our lives. It makes one realize that we don’t need to travel half way around the world to have these kinds of experiences, only the willingness to be open with each other and accepting of each other for who we are. That is the true nature of our being, the connectedness we all share. It shows itself in the most unusual places as reminders of who we really are.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Income Disparity Makes People Unhappy

Many economists and sociologists have warned of the social dangers of a wide gap between the richest and everyone else. Now, a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, adds a psychological reason to narrow the disparity - it makes people unhappy.

Over the last 40 years, "we've seen that people seem to be happier when there is more equality," says University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, who conducted the study with Virginia colleague Selin Kesebir and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois. "Income disparity has grown a lot in the U.S., especially since the 1980s. With that, we've seen a marked drop in life satisfaction and happiness." The findings hold true for about 60 percent of Americans-people in the lower and moderate income brackets.

But why? To find out, the researchers looked at a portion of the data gathered by the General Social Survey from 1972 to 2008, a poll of 1,500 to 2,000 people randomly selected from the U.S. population every other year (it used to be every year). In all, the study sample included more than 48,000 respondents over 37 years.

The psychologists examined the relationships among the answers to one question rating happiness on a three-point scale and two indicating the respondents' sense of how fair and trustworthy their fellow Americans were. These answers were analyzed alongside the individual's income and a globally recognized instrument measuring national income equality in each survey year.

The conclusions: That grim mood cannot be attributed to thinner pocketbooks during periods of greater inequality-though those pocketbooks were thinner. Rather, the gap between people's own fortunes and those of people who are better off is correlated with feelings that other people are less fair and less trustworthy, and this results in a diminished sense of wellbeing in general.

Interestingly, the psychologists found, the inequality blues did not afflict Americans at the top.. For instance, the richest 20 percent, income disparity or its absence did not affect their feelings about fairness and trust-or their happiness-one way or the other.

Before this analysis, says Oishi, most studies measuring life satisfaction and income disparity have looked at the differences between nations or states. The results have been mixed; some studies found equal nations and states are happier than unequal ones, while other studies did not find any relation. "People were puzzled." "In addition, it was hard to interpret the previous findings as Brazil is different from Sweden, and Mississippi is different from Minnesota not only in income inequality but in many other factors" he notes.

But this study eliminates the variables of geographic and cultural difference by looking at the same nation over a long period of time. For the first time, psychologists can see a link between a major socio-economic factor and the quality of people's individual lives.

The researchers caution that they show only correlations and not causation; and that other dynamics may be been at play in the respondents' changing wellbeing.

Still, says Oishi, "the implications are clear: If we care about the happiness of most people, we need to do something about income inequality." One way to accomplish that end, he says, is with more progressive taxation.

Association for Psychological Science