Tonight I had the pleasure of listening to a fascinating interview with author Eldar Shafir about his book, Scarcity, Why having too little means so much (with co-author Sendhil Mullainathan). While I haven’t yet read it, through the interview I was able to tell that the book points out a very disruptive aspect of what I’m trying to impart here.
Eldar Shafir is the William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. His book starts off with my fundamental point here: we all only have so much “bandwidth.” For instance, when we’re in the car, we all turn down the radio when we’re looking for an address. You can only do so much thinking—so much processing—each day, and your life will be made up of what choices you make within those individual moments.
For Shafir, the point is that the very poor have to spend a lot of their processing power on pure survival. There are no casual decisions. They have no expendable income. They are the ones that know that a $1.60 coffee each workday is $8.00 towards groceries at the end of the week. And they’re the ones that end up suffering from decision fatigue.
For the poor, there isn’t enough already so life is always a matter of choosing which form of pain they will experience. Shafir’s research showed that those conditions literally deducted a serious number of points off people’s IQ’s. Not having enough money was equivalent to not getting any sleep. Just the brain-stress of all of those calculations was leaving them with less time and caloric energy to make forward-thinking plans that might actually improve their future. And this applied to everyone equally. It doesn’t matter what your education is, what your previous capabilities were, the simple lack of bandwidth results in more difficult days and less odds of success for whoever is in the situation.
Obviously the poor are left with fewer basic choices. Under the right circumstances fewer choices can be a very healthy thing because it can leave you with more time to simply be, and there is great value in that. However in deep poverty there is no time to be. Every choice is critical. Every choice involves the very foundations of Maslow’s Pyramid. Every choice must be examined for its possible financial effects. Wasted money or time is literally dangerous. Any pause is a lost moment of sleep or a lost opportunity to bring in or save more money.
Where there is perpetual shortage there is a non-stop scan of the environment for any opportunity that you can fit into your morals. And in this world, the more moral you are the more you go without. If you won’t steal, you have to watch the clock like a hawk because you know that there’s this one person at work that often doesn’t finish their lunch, and you want to be there when they give the rest of it away.
Or you put $20 dollars worth of fuel into your old car—the one you can’t afford to pay to fix—and then when it breaks down you cry because you realize you’ve trapped $20 worth of food in the gas tank. Or when you miss the bus and have to wait in the snow for another half hour it’s much more difficult because there are holes in the bottom of your shoes. Holes no one else can see. And these people will routinely hear people complaining about problems they would love to have because there are people around you every single day and this sort of poverty is their daily reality. They work alongside you without you ever wondering why they never go to the birthday lunches at restaurants.
Shafir sounds like a very compassionate doctor to me. And all of his research makes sense with what I learned about the human brain through my studies. On top of the pure energy and expenditures of effort, it’s also important to remember that these are calculations with potentially disastrous effects. You’ll make each calculation a few times just to make sure because the downsides are so profound. And that’s more energy again. And stress hormones as you rightfully recognize some very real potential consequences. If you’re walking on the edge of a cliff it’s a good idea to be extra wary.
Strangely enough, these sorts of times are when it’s most useful to be able to see the best in the world. A wise man once told me that the more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war. So practice whenever you can. Get good at looking for the positives in all situations. You’ll still have plenty of opportunities to be sad. But you won’t waste any time being sad when it’s no longer what you want to experience. Because sadness, fear, worry and anger all eat up energy that could be better used moving forward.
When you’re in the position of facing something that is not only challenging, but also something long term—something you may have to face alone or with dependants for years or more—then you must be able to call upon your connection to the world around you. If you can learn to be grateful in circumstances such as the ones described then you have mastered this life.
Surely you will waver in and out of your health for no other reason than fatigue. And some days you may feel like simply caving in and crying yourself into oblivion. But those tears stream down one of the many faces of strength. Because the only way out is through, and if one accepts that fact early on then the entire experience can be about building the sort of strength that does not require material trappings.
True character isn’t cool clothes or cool car or a cool job. Character is when the individual person is able to convey a cool confidence that has emerged from tested, fundamental knowledge; they know they can survive tremendous hardship. And that knowledge of self is worth more than all of the gold in the world, for as Lao Tzu said, “He who is contented is rich.”
Take a look around your world. There’s probably people around you every day that would benefit enormously from the smallest gestures. And by giving you would be proving to yourself that you have more than enough. But fair warning: in the vast majority of cases the act of helping will simply feel wonderful. It’s why people work in refugee camps or with organizations like Doctors Without Borders. And that’s actually why I would suggest you consider adding more generosity to your day. Because it’s good for you.
Yes, it’s great that a seriously struggling person gets a hand, but it’s even better if they get valuable assistance and yet you also get the wonderful feeling that goes with helping others. It’s a win-win. The poor are aware of this, which is why—as a percentage of income—they give away more than anyone. Their own life experience keeps them very empathetic to the hidden challenges of poverty and it is through that connection that they share their love and support. Often the rewards that go along with that generosity are one of the few feelings keeping them going.
Our culture does not feel fortunate enough. Too many people literally do not have enough while others struggle to manage their excess. Mixing these two groups gives one group a chance at relief while the other gets to experience gratitude. And when our priorities are focused on creating that kind of wealth in our society, we will truly have advanced as a culture.
Be kind out there today. You just never know how heavy a load everyone is carrying. And you just never know how much your patience, love or support might help.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.
Here’s the link to the radio interview. I highly recommend it: