Here is some 3,000-year-old advice on happiness: “Happy is the one who considers the poor” (Psalm 41:1). When we think about people who are more fortunate than we are, we become unhappy. Aspirational perhaps, but not happy.
Yet Americans spend an inordinate amount of time considering the rich. Reality TV shows portray families who are gifted with extravagant wealth. Magazine covers are plastered with the lives of the rich and famous, although rarely do they feature the happiness of the rich and famous. The American formula seems to be: Find someone who should be happy, demonstrate that they are not, shout gleefully.
Granted, it can give you an endorphin kick to see that a princess has anger-management problems or the heir to a fortune trampolines from detox center to detox center. And who doesn’t thrill to the never-tired saga of someone getting cheated on by their lover or hounded by the IRS? Still, schadenfreude, the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others, carries you only so far. Sooner or later you have to return to your own life, and knowing that rich people are periodically miserable doesn’t really put a spring in your step.
But when we see how truly wretched many others are, we return to our own tables, groaning with food, with gratitude. And, perhaps, with a resolve to help those less fortunate. Directing our attention to the poor may not come naturally to us. Gossip is always about our social equals or superiors. Very few people sidle up to you explaining they have juicy gossip about the “help.” Upstairs doesn’t concern itself very much with downstairs. But maybe we should rethink this societal tendency to “voyeur up.” The Psalmist has it right.
I’ve met many people who work with the poor, and very few of them are unhappy. They may be frustrated at lack of progress, but they don’t have the pouting, resentful jealousies the rest of us develop when we only look at the lives of those who have more than we do.
Social envy has its purposes. The desire to better oneself can arise from seeing how much others have, and, with one’s nose pressed to the glass, dream of one day accomplishing more to make it inside. But motivational stargazing is far less common than simply wistful imagining. And that kind of envy leaves us hollow and unaware of the exuberant blessings in our own lives.
The Bible was right. We should spend more time considering the poor. Better for them. Better for us.