Compared to Whom?

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Happy childrenHave you ever heard someone remark in surprise at how happy the people they visited in a third-world country seemed despite their poverty?

I noted something similar when I saw the movie Babies, a delightful film capturing the first year in the life of four adorable babies on four different continents—Ponijao from Namibia, Mari from Japan, Bayar from Mongolia, and Hattie from the United States. While the babies have many things in common, like their penchant for sucking on toes, in many respects their lives are strikingly different. Ponijao, for instance, is literally “dirt poor,” wearing next to nothing and playing happily with rocks, empty cans, and refuse. Mari, on the other hand, enjoys the obvious advantages of being born into a prosperous and sophisticated Japanese family. Despite the fact that these children are at opposite ends of the material spectrum, both seemed reasonably happy.

Of course, temperament can have a significant impact on our sense of happiness. But perhaps there’s more to it than that. Robert Sapolsky points out that once you have the basics covered, such as food and shelter, being poor isn’t as bad for you as feeling poor. The trouble is, many people feel poor. “Thanks to urbanization, mobility, and the media,” he points out, “something absolutely unprecedented can now occur—we can now be made to feel poor, or poorly about ourselves, by people we don’t even know. You can feel impoverished . . . by Bill Gates on the evening news, even by a fictional character in a movie.”(1)

Though Ponijao and Mari are too young to be affected by this dynamic, it may be that Ponijao will grow up in his isolated village a happy man, unaware of his relative poverty, while Mari will unhappily realize some are better off than she is. When it comes to the Ponijaos and Maris of the world, most of us fit into the Mari category. Knowing that, let’s be on guard against comparing ourselves to movie stars and moguls, choosing instead to be content with what we have.

(1.) Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 376–77.

(Image courtesy of sumi at

Originally published September 04, 2014.