Poverty, Dignity and Happiness

January 2, 2014

Dignity, Happiness, Poverty

Poverty and Dignity

On New Year’s Eve my teenage daughter wrote me a card which said, among other things: “Thank you for being my dive partner! I love our crazy adventures, in or out of the sea. You’re my adventurer! I know we have our silly squabbles, but I love you to the moon and back and we WILL go to every national park and log a million and one dives together…I know 2014 will be full of amazing adventures and experiences for us.” It goes without saying that these precious words gave me greater satisfaction than anything I had received over the holidays. In retrospect I have not done much with my life, no great discoveries, no business empires, nothing the world will remember me for. However, clearly there is something in my relationship with my daughter that is working, and therefore very satisfying for both of us.

Now, while it’s true that certain enabling conditions had to be met to go on some of these adventures, for example, the ability to take a few days off work, and a small amount of money to rent scuba diving equipment, it’s also true that most of our adventures together have not involved much more than packing a tent, a stove, and some hiking boots, and heading off into the wilderness. Could we have experienced more happiness staying in a swanky hotel or a plush resort somewhere? It’s not obvious in this case that money, beyond the amount needed to meet the minimum enabling conditions, would have produced any greater happiness. Indeed, in our example I’m convinced it would definitely have detracted from the experience.

However, I want to make a different and perhaps more profound point. When I am in the wilderness I survive on far less than anyone receiving the minimum wage. I live with no phone, radio, TV, iPod or refrigerator. Even the homeless in a large city have more options to seek shelter from the elements than I do. Yet, if my daughter and I were forced to spend years in the wilderness with others, at near subsistence, our lives would not necessarily be without happiness and dignity. It is possible to live a modest and decent life with close to subsistence levels of material resources. However, in the West politicians who have never experienced poverty themselves, seem to be obsessed with the idea that poverty has to be eliminated, and that the way to do this is to throw enormous quantities of money at the problem.  They fail to understand that poverty has less to do with a deficiency of material resources than it does with the conditions that make a modest and decent life possible, namely safety, self-respect and self-fulfillment. Address these latter issues and the problem of poverty will shrink to its rightful perspective.


“One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”  Michael J. Fox

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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30 Comments on “Poverty, Dignity and Happiness”

  1. Morgan Mussell Says:

    Great post, Malcolm, and a Happy New Year to you and your daughter!


  2. Zoli Says:

    Excellent post. Happy. New Year from the Brit & USz VI!

    Sent from my iPhone



  3. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Hmmm (responding in reverse order of ideas presented)….appreciate your deconstruction of the plight of poverty. Your description of the ways you subsist (happily) on the bare minimal away from civilization reminds me of a news radio interview I’ve been mulling over occasionally. I’ve been meaning to look up the guy who abdicated money and learned to live off whatever he would find – in isolation, others’ trash, etc. I considered a post on the concepts he talked about in the interview. Lastly, the glimpse into your relationship with your daughter is just precious (not to mention this other cool side of Malcolm who doffs his business city suit and makes it out there in the wild). 😉


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t think we have to take this analogy too far, living off trash etc. It’s just a question of recognizing that not much is required to live a modest, decent existence – far, far less than is generally recognized. Given the choice between living in a violent inner city neighborhood on the minimum wage or a subsistence level existence in a Thai peasant village that provides safety and community I would have no hesitation in choosing the Thai village.


  4. Michele Seminara Says:

    What wonderful words to receive from your daughter! Priceless indeed. External wealth certainly can’t buy that sort of happiness. I agree, If we all focused on making our lives rich in the ways you mentioned, not having so much money would not bother us – although I think having access to a clean, natural environment, is an important condition. Keep relishing those adventure, Malcolm!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michele, thank you. You raise a good point about the environment. Personally I believe that a clean, natural environment is more a function of the allocation of property rights than it is of spending money. Most pollution takes place in areas where property rights are nebulous or non-existent e.g. air, oceans and rivers. In the U.K. rivers are privately owned and the downstream owner of a stretch of river can sue an upstream owner who pollutes. Not surprisingly pollution is far less of a problem here. This subject clearly merits its own post at some point 🙂


  5. Brett Says:

    Once again, a lovely post, Malcolm. I often think about positive psyche’s “flourish” principle, which says that we need a stable material foundation to flourish by doing things that make us happy, like having experiences, doing meaningful activities, and making deep relationships.

    However, I think such a foundation has some subjectivity to it. It’s like the Stoics say, that someone is rich when they have enough and poor when they do not, no matter how much actual money he or she would have. Still, it’s easier said than done, I think, haha.

    Thanks for sharing. Happy New Year.


  6. aaforringer Says:

    True, True and Truth.


  7. Dalo 2013 Says:

    You touch on how simple and wonderful life can be with family and those you love. “Packing a tent, a stove, and some hiking boots, and heading off into the wilderness” contains everything a child dreams about: adventure, love of family and any issues that come up are a part of the adventure.

    The best vacation me and my three sisters ever had, was a horseback camping trip with my parents in the East Eagle Cap wilderness (for a week). During the week, a rare weeklong summer storm resulting in a flooded tent for the kids (we all moved in with Mon & Dad), wet clothes…and nothing but smiles. To this day we still talk about how great it was.

    Yesterday I mentioned to someone that happiness is the most beautiful thing in the world, as it finds good people regardless of social and economic status. Family, friends, warm & strong beliefs of a positive source creates a life full of happiness (even in poverty) that give rich experiences many of us can only dream about. If anything, money and wealth can distract from all of this…and perhaps even numb the experiences in life that are valuable (in turn, numbing emotions as well).

    A wonderful post to give insight into the special relationship you have with your daughter. You both seems to have that great spirit, and your daughter has something that lucky children around the world share: embraced in love and guidance from a young age. That is the most important gift. Cheers to a great ’14.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this wonderful comment which is a post in itself 🙂 I just want to highlight one of the things you say:

      “money and wealth can distract from all of this…and perhaps even numb the experiences in life that are valuable (in turn, numbing emotions as well).”

      I think this is a very valuable point. Even at the macro level we see that markets enable us to buy services that used to be provided within the family or community, for example, the care of seniors. Looking after our parents as they age might be difficult but it also provides great satisfaction and joy. Money enables us to insulate ourselves from dependence on others but in doing so it also insulates us from spontaneous acts of benevolence and goodwill, which, as you say, numbs our emotions.


  8. chr1 Says:

    Well said, Malcolm. It will always be there, but so will hard work, dignity, willpower, kindness etc.


  9. godtisx Says:

    Wow, you have a magnificent relationship with your daughter. For your child to take the time to write such heartfelt words definitely means you are doing something very right.

    I was touched almost to tears all the way from NY. I am not a parent but one day plan to be and I know, even now what this means. But I do agree there are different ways of perceiving ‘poverty.’ Nice post.


  10. swabby429 Says:

    The phrase, “However, in the West politicians who have never experienced poverty themselves….” speaks volumes. The story of your relationship is beautiful.


  11. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you Swabby. As you know poverty is one of those difficult subject to speak about because everyone has their own agenda.


  12. Tahira Says:

    Lovely words indeed from your daughter, Malcolm. And another thought provoking well written post. I agree, much of life is what one makes it, a mind set, an attitude. I too am always happier with *less*. Your post makes one wonder that this fight against poverty could be won with perhaps a simple change of perspective?


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