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How inequality hurts Romney's happiness

By Jason Marsh, Special to CNN
updated 10:30 AM EDT, Fri September 21, 2012
Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney on his campaign plane en route to their New Hampshire vacation home early this month.
Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney on his campaign plane en route to their New Hampshire vacation home early this month.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jason Marsh: Romney 47% comment bothered many as attack on most vulnerable
  • But, he says, research shows wealthy like Romney have impaired social emotional skills
  • More money linked to less generosity, empathy, few social connections, less happiness
  • Marsh: Inequality may be self-perpetuating; rich less likely to feel compassion for poor

Editor's note: Jason Marsh is the founding editor-in-chief of the online magazine Greater Good, published by the The Greater Good Science Center, which focuses on the "science of a meaningful life" and is based at the University of California at Berkeley.

(CNN) -- The video of Mitt Romney deriding the 47% of Americans "who are dependent upon government" re-ignited a debate about social class in America this week, exactly one year after the Occupy Wall Street movement first took to the streets to protest rising inequality. At a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, Romney scoffed at that 47% "who pay no income tax" and "believe they are victims."

Romney's comments bothered many Americans because he seemed to be attacking some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Aside from whether they actually "believe they are victims," research has consistently shown that people lower on the social totem pole suffer significantly worse mental and physical health than those better off, including higher rates of heart disease, depression, suicide, several forms of cancer and death.

Jason Marsh
Jason Marsh

Yet a new line of psychological research suggests there's another victim of inequality: the rich themselves. In fact, Romney's comments could make him the poster child for this research.

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In a series of studies, researchers have found that attaining high social status impairs key social and emotional skills.

For instance, a 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that people of higher socioeconomic status were worse at reading other people's emotions, a skill known as "empathic accuracy," a basic part of empathy. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers -- including Dacher Keltner, my colleague at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center -- made people feel higher or lower on the social ladder. Regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, people temporarily made to feel upper class had a harder time reading other people's emotions; people made to feel lower class showed better empathy.

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This suggests that there's something about the experience of high status that hurts our ability to connect with others emotionally. Other studies have suggested that high status makes people less compassionate, less generous and less interested in connecting with others in general .

Here's why the people at that $50,000-a-plate dinner should care about this research: The skills that seem to be impaired by elevated status are the same skills that research has strongly linked to leading a happy, meaningful life. So as the super rich in this country assume an ever-loftier status above the 47% (or the 99%), they risk depleting their own reserves of happiness.

"Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative -- these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness," says UC Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Paul Piff, the lead author of a study that found that people of higher socioeconomic status were less willing to share money with a stranger or make charitable donations. (However, when they were made to feel lower status, they became more generous; the opposite was true for people made to feel high status -- they became stingier.)

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Indeed, perhaps the dominant finding to emerge from positive psychology research over the past decade is that our happiness (and health) is largely determined by the quality and quantity of our social connections. Perhaps that's why "pro-social" behaviors and emotions -- compassion, empathy, altruism -- have been so strongly linked to happiness.

Consider: Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, has consistently found that people report feeling happier after doing nice things for others. Several neuroscience studies have found that giving to others activates pleasure regions of the brain. Research by psychologists Lara Aknin and Elizabeth Dunn has even suggested that spending money on others makes you happier than spending on yourself. And a Canadian study published last year, led by Myriam Mongrain, found that after people supported others compassionately for just five to 15 minutes every day for a week, the compassionate people reported significant gains in happiness and self-esteem six months later.

These findings suggest an explanation for why, once Americans attain an annual income of $75,000, more money doesn't seem to bring more happiness: Beyond that point, perhaps our elevated sense of status brings with it the harmful social and emotional effects that undercut the joys of more money.

Sure enough, one recent study found that people who were wealthier, or were just temporarily made to feel wealthier, were worse at savoring everyday pleasures, a key to happiness, according to prior research.

The research linking wealth and empathy certainly suggests one reason why Romney has seemed to demonstrate callousness and trouble connecting with voters on the campaign trail, with his comments about the 47% being just the latest example. In light of this research, the video of Romney carries another troubling implication: that inequality may be self-perpetuating, making the rich less likely to feel compassion for the poor, thereby increasing the economic gap between them.

Opinion: Romney, Americans are not moochers

But we probably don't need to read too much research to appreciate how this empathy gap is bad for Romney's happiness. Just look at a new Pew Research Center poll , which shows that he trails President Obama by 8 percentage points, and 43 points in the area of "connects well with ordinary Americans."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Marsh.

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