The Importance of Attention III: Charitable giving

When we buy things in order to make us happy, the question we should ask first is not how much we like it or how much it costs, but whether it will keep our attention once it is in regular daily use. If it cannot hold our attention, the liking or the price will not matter.  The same applies if we spend money to avoid things we do not like. The degree to which something brings us displeasure does not depend on how nasty it is, or even how long it remains nasty, but on how often the nastiness has our attention. We can see an example of this in the spending patterns of the poor.

There is perhaps nothing that irritates the sensibilities of those well-intentioned folk who make charitable donations to the poor than when the recipients spend the money on things like cable television subscriptions, cigarettes or lottery tickets. Why do they waste time watching pointless game shows and mindless reality series, when they could be educating themselves in order to become more marketable in the workplace? Why do they pursue activities that are demonstrably bad for their health when the obvious consequences are a fall in their life expectancy, a reduction in their lifetime earnings power, and a rise in their lifetime healthcare costs, all of which make the escape from poverty much harder? Why do they throw money away on games of chance whose odds are stacked against them? Wouldn’t it be better to put the lottery ticket money into a college fund for their children so that they at least have a chance for social mobility? In short, why do they not do the kinds of things the donors do with their money?

The reason wealthy charitable givers are so often dismayed by the behaviour of those on the receiving end is because they cannot imagine what it is like to live in absolute misery. They cannot conceive of what it is like to work long hours in dull or dirty work for low wages, to live in sub-standard dwelling, or to have to worry endlessly about what the next day will bring. When you are poor, poverty has much of your attention so it has the capacity to make you very unhappy. Even when one tries to attend to other things, the mind has a tendency to wander back to one’s poverty. Anything that can successfully distract one’s attention away from the situation, even for just a short while, brings enormous advantages for one’s emotional well-being and possibly brings advantages for one’s health too. This is not to say that cigarettes, gambling and cable television are good things, just that they do bring some benefits that are not apparent at first glance. I concede that less costly gambling – one box on the lottery ticket instead of ten – or other, possibly cheaper leisure activities could provide the same level of distraction. But there is no reason why the spending behaviour of charity recipients should be the same as those of the donor because the happiness-maximising/unhappiness-minimising objectives of the two are not the same.

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