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I was getting dressed one morning, half-listening to a TV interview with a Swedish businessman, when one of his comments caught my ear. “When you have heavy taxes, it takes away the desire to get rich, and then you start focusing on things that are more important than money. You care about other things than just getting ahead.”

Americans spend an awful lot of their time thinking about money — either how to get out of debt or how to make more. Especially the rich: They’re always having to check the stock market to see how their investments are doing.

In part, we’re forced to do this because most of us are faced with real economic challenges. But it’s also because we believe that if we’re rich, we’ll be happy and so we neglect other avenues for fulfillment. Our emotions are bound up with getting ahead, not finding satisfaction.

Problems of inequality

Because profit seems to be more important than people or the planet, we lead the world in wealth inequality. And wealth inequality brings problems: Out of the industrialized countries, we’re last in life expectancy, math and literacy performance by students, infant mortality, homicides, imprisonment, teenage births, trust, obesity, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction) and social well-being.

Of course, the poor are the most affected by wealth inequality. But the unknown fact is that inequality affects the rich, as well. For instance, a rich man in the United States has a shorter life expectancy than the average person in Denmark.

Why? The researchers suggest it’s because social cohesion is destroyed when there are big gaps between the rich and the poor. In particular, disparities affect trust. When trust is low, you expect others to cheat you or lie to you. Think how sad and lonely that sounds, to not be able to trust your fellow human beings. And as wealth inequality rises, trust goes down.

Trust is even broader: It’s a feeling that you belong, that you can count on others to care for you when you need them. And this is what we lack in the United States: a feeling of security and caring from others.

And it gets more subtle: We know that stress hurts our health, and the United States is a very stressed society. A Gallup poll found that out of 151 countries, we are 145th on stress (higher is worse!) On one level, stress is caused by lack of time. We work the longest hours of any industrialized country, and we’re still without guaranteed vacations, sick leave or parental leave. So, yes, we’re run ragged, and it affects our health.

It appears, though, that there is another kind of stress: social stress. This involves the fear of people’s judgment. Do you feel respected and valued? Are you fearful about negative responses in terms of attractiveness or cleverness? It’s the fear of being judged and found wanting.

And it seems that this kind of status competition is much higher in unequal societies. When there is a big wealth gap, people spend a lot of their time trying to prove they’re superior. We play little word games showing off our status. We buy clothes and cars that give us status. We have big houses with lots of stuff in them. We only hang out with certain people. We want to look important, to be a winner.

Destroying dignity

Social well-being is also related to democracy, an incredible concept. It means that we believe in the dignity and worth of all human beings. Democracy gives each of us dignity, and that’s what is ultimately destroyed with wealth inequality.

Democracy is undermined because the wealthy have much more power than the rest of us. And, of course, with the Supreme Court decision (Citizens United) giving corporations personhood, the rich have even more control over elections (something the Move to Amend movement is working on).

So let’s get involved in the national conversation that President Barack Obama has proclaimed the issue of our time: wealth inequality.

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, 2004, from Wikimedia Commons: "Mall cultural in Jakarta, Indonesia."  Added by Bart at Resilience.