Fairy Tales

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Money can’t buy happiness.

This is the fairy tale that we tell ourselves to feel less envious of the rich and that the rich promote in order to feel safer. It’s true, of course, that happiness isn’t a commodity you can buy on Amazon. And it’s also true that rich can be quite miserable. But having lots of money gives the rich access to all the things that generally make for happiness. By almost every measure, rich people are better off than the rest of us. They have better healthcare—even in countries that have universal healthcare—take more vacations, eat better food, wear more comfortable underwear and shoes, and generally suffer less from stress and stress-related ailments. With some notable exceptions, the rich tend to be taller, fitter and better looking than the poor. As someone said (the quote has been attributed to several people): “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”  This fairy tale is closely related to one cherished especially by pious Catholics of a certain age, i.e., that suffering is a sign of God’s love. Some evangelical Christian sects have a counter fairy tale making wealth and prosperity a sign of God’s love. Either way, the message for us is to leave the rich alone because they’re not as happy as we imagine and because God either doesn’t love them or does.

Narcissistic braggarts are really very insecure.

This fairy tale has been given new life by the election of Donald Trump. It’s similar to the fairy tale that delinquents and criminals suffer from low self-esteem. In fact, studies have shown that they have extremely high self-esteem. For obvious reasons we desperately want to believe that boorish and criminal behavior is its own punishment. But, alas, criminals and boors are happy as clams and secure in the knowledge that they’re better than the rest of us. Donald Trump is enjoying every moment of his triumph and feels absolutely superior to everybody else, especially Mitt Romney.

Cheaters never prosper.

I remember saying this once to a Holocaust survivor I used to play chess with. We were talking about the near impossibility of cheating at chess. It’s hard to describe the look he gave me, but it was one of utter incredulity at my naiveté. Later we played a game when he was recovering from surgery in the hospital and couldn’t really see the board clearly. I managed to queen one of his pawns as my own and won handily.

All people are equally intelligent, just in different ways.

This view is based mostly on anecdotal evidence, but as someone said, the plural of anecdote isn’t data. There are hundreds and hundreds of studies showing that general intelligence (GI) as measured by IQ tests is the single most effective predictor of life outcomes such as success in school and on the job and general well-being, including a person’s chances of divorcing, dropping out of high school, being unemployed, or having illegitimate children.

The fairy tale about equal intelligence usually goes something like this: “We tend to equate intelligence with academic intelligence. But an intellectual who understands Wittgenstein may be completely useless when it comes to repairing a toilet. A scientist may not have the emotional intelligence to maintain a stable relationship.”

But these notions are based on stereotypes about awkward, nerdy intellectuals and reflect an anti-intellectual bias in the culture. It’s not as though academic and mechanical skills are mutually exclusive. Surely there are more Wittgenstein specialists who can do plumbing than plumbers who can understand Wittgenstein. Scientists actually have a very low divorce rate (8.9 %), compared to, say, massage therapists (38.22%).

Those who insist that intelligence comes in a variety of flavors are simply confusing intelligence with personality traits and knowledge. Take the Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, a prominent brain surgeon who thinks that being gay is a lifestyle choice and that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen since slavery. Does Dr. Carson have brain surgeon intelligence but lack the sort of intelligence that makes one a liberal Democrat? No, Dr. Carson is a fundamentalist evangelical Christian who has embraced an extreme right-wing ideology. Highly intelligent people can be abysmally ignorant about matters outside their specialty, but although stupid people tend to be ignorant, ignorance in itself does not equal stupidity.

Despite the egalitarian fairy tale about intelligence, nuclear physicists are not only more intelligent than most of the rest of us, they’re also on average healthier, happier, and more prosperous. Life isn’t fair.

3 thoughts on “Fairy Tales

  1. You say that the rich “wear more comfortable underwear and shoes….”

    You regularly mention to me how comfortable and generally great are the shoes you wear, even though most of them come from your local thrift store …. You don’t give me the impression that you would feel so much better if you had a new pair of shoes, and I agree with you on that. (I know nothing about your underwear, though!)

    Yes, up to a certain point rich is better than poor, but thereafter in the spectrum, once all ones needs are satisfied, being richer won’t change a thing…. Is the person in possession of 5 billion dollars better off in any meaningful way than one in possession of only 1 billion?


  2. My successful bargain hunting notwithstanding, by any measure I count as rich. I am keenly aware that had I at some point lost my job or if my pension suddenly disappeared, my life would be filled with stress. Although the dictum that money can’t buy happiness contains a kernel of truth, it has mostly functioned as a fairy tale intended to make the poor feel better about their state.

    Liked by 1 person

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