If we look at the socio-economic scale alone, one can quickly see how different groups tend to sort out. Black women disproportionately filled the bottom for many decades. In recent years, African American women have made significant educational and economic gains, so most recent studies seem to be recategorizing the bottom more as the province of African American and Native American men. White men, however, highly over-represent the top, as they have done since the founding of our nation. White women, who now own roughly 60 percent of all stock portfolios in America, fill the second rank. Their wealth is in part due to the enormous economic gains many women have made in recent decades but also to women living, on average, about seven years longer than their husbands do and inheriting their portfolios. With an average life span of eighty years, white women live longer than any other demographic group. By comparison, African American men live about sixty-seven years, which in addition to the poverty gap they face points to a serious mortality gap as well.
Social theory on the power of wealth to buy happiness and satisfaction with life would have us believe, then, that those who have the most wealth and power—white men—are then the happiest or most fulfilled of all social groups. This idea is exacerbated somewhat by a deeply entrenched fantasy of American capitalism: that more is always better. If we look at a more psychological scale of life satisfaction, however, social and economic theory starts to fall apart, at least in this one area concerning what makes life worthwhile. As a therapist with a lot of advantaged clients, it quickly became evident to me that, despite some of the class sensitivities I might have picked up during my liberal education, there was actually a great deal of suffering going on among the privileged classes. As a more reliable indicator of the true psychological well-being of different social groups, I prefer to examine the suicide statistics. Beyond reports of well-being or unhappiness, and social theories of privilege or privation, suicide is a very powerful, objective statement about a person’s true state of wholeness or despair.
Who is at the very top of the suicide scale? White males. In fact, white males are heavily overrepresented on this scale; they kill themselves almost five times more often than do white females. The suicide rates for white males over the age of sixty-five take a drastic spike upward. White males in the fifteen- to twenty-four-year-old range also have dramatically increased rates. Who is at the very bottom of the suicide scale? You likely guessed it: black females. In fact, the rate of suicide for African American women is so low it is statistically insignificant.
People who go to church or temple are often happier. It is not clear, however, if this increase in happiness comes directly from religion itself or the social support of belonging to a community. But in the case of black women, it may be one of the factors in their resilience since they are at the heart of their religious communities throughout the nation. Whatever the cause, I believe this phenomenon undercuts social theories that equate happiness with one’s rank on the social, political, and economic power scales. Princess Diana once wryly commented, “They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?” She was one of many public figures for whom extraordinary wealth and power did not convey equal measures of happiness.
One of the most constant presentations psychotherapists experience in their consulting rooms are people suffering with varying degrees of unhappiness. Helping clients to make deeper meaning out of their lived experience and ameliorating their symptoms of depression and anxiety consumes the bulk of most psychotherapists’ professional attention. One would think, therefore, that we would spend a lot of time researching what actually makes people happy. But this is not the case. One thing that stands out starkly, however, is the clear reality that the power of Money to make people happy is very limited. One might think, “I just wish I just had the chance to prove that more Money will not make me happy.” Nevertheless, research reports and the lives of those who do have Money tend to confirm this. On a national scale, if Money made people happy, then the United States would be the happiest place on Earth. Outside of Disneyland, however, which claims that distinction in its corporate motto, this does not appear to be true.
The next blog explores the reasons why, the US as one of wealthiest nations on the planet, ranks so low on international surveys of happiness.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of the recent book: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.