Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

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.

Opinion: It's not all over for Romney

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.

Romney: My dad grew up poor
CNN iReporters discuss Romney's gaffe
McKinnon: 'Harder to defend' Romney

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.)

Opinion: Romney better off as a Latino?

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."

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT