How Poverty Kills Wonder and What We Can Do About It

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THERE IS ONE AVENUE towards my personal experience of wonder that is guaranteed: Yosemite National Park. I grew up less than an hour from the valley floor and spent many lazy Saturday afternoons dangling my feet in the Merced River, looking up at the massive granite walls of Half Dome and El Capitan, hypnotized by the waterfalls. No matter how many times I’ve been there—and there are far too many to remember—the experience has always taken my breath away. It never becomes familiar.


The celebrated twentieth-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presents a twist on the Cartesian formula when he writes,

We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.

Rene Descartes himself said wonder is the “first of all passions.” It’s what floods us when we encounter something that’s too much for our brains to process. We look up at the night sky, for example, and we’re filled with awe. Why? If we’re far enough from light pollution, the thousands upon thousands of points of light, each a star millions or billions of light years away, overwhelm us. Even for scientists who thoroughly understand what’s happening and how the universe came to be like this, it provokes wonder.

Think of the look of surprise on a toddler’s face as they explore the world around them. Every little thing is a brand new discovery. That expression of surprise and absolute delight is wonder. Wonder arrests us. It stops us in our tracks and demands almost worshipful attention. Indeed, throughout intellectual history, efforts to describe wonder are almost always tinged with religious, or at least spiritual, language. Descartes actually felt that wonder, while unavoidable, is an experience we should try to overcome by understanding the thing that at first surprises and amazes us. Wonder is the fire beneath curiosity, driving humanity to discovery. Today, most of us appreciate wonder as not only a motivation to deeper knowledge and understanding, but also as a positive motivation in its own right. Humans have a unique capacity to reflect on our thinking and feeling. Wonder takes us out beyond the mundanities of our daily lives and invites us to take in the big picture.

But how? Especially as mere mundanities become a matter of literal survival, how can we afford to chase fleeting, transcendent experiences? And why would we? There are so many more pressing things to accomplish before we find time to visit art museums, read poetry, or take languorous walks through gardens.

As we get older and have more experience with the world, wonder becomes harder to locate and even harder to sustain. We know the world isn’t universally beautiful and unequivocally wonderful. The pressures of modern life crowd out these experiences. Society is organized around financial success, material accumulation, and positions of power, not experiences of beauty and awe. We run to keep up because falling behind can be deadly. Our expectations have fallen so low that many people aspire to simply avoid becoming homeless or dying without access to healthcare.

The early twentieth-century psychologist, researcher, and 1967 Humanist of the Year Abraham Maslow was curious about exactly these questions. He proposed that humans have a hierarchy of needs. At the most basic level are physiological needs such as the need for food, shelter, clothing, and sleep. At the second stage of Maslow’s hierarchy are safety and security, including needs for bodily safety, health, and economic security. Further up the famous pyramid is the need for loving relationships, then personal accomplishment and esteem, and finally what Maslow called self-actualization.

In 1968 Maslow wrote of self-actualizing persons,

[their] contact with reality is simply more direct. And along with this unfiltered, unmediated directness of their contact with reality comes also a vastly heightened ability to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale those experiences may have become for others.

Self-actualization for Maslow was a return to a childlike wonder but with a deep awareness of the world that was anything but childlike.

In the face of critique, other psychologists have tested Maslow’s basic hypothesis with further research, including one 2011 study by Louis Tay and Ed Diener that surveyed over 60,000 people across 123 countries. What they discovered is a basic affirmation of Maslow’s original conclusions with a few important caveats. The so-called hierarchy isn’t strictly linear. A person can, for example, meet some of their needs for social fulfillment even while not having their basic need for food and shelter met. Maslow indicated as much himself. Tay and Diener also found that people at various stages along the spectrum of needs fulfillment experienced some degree of subjective wellbeing (SWB). One needn’t arrive at a sort of mythic self-actualization to experience joy and wonder.

Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan have recently written about the way in which scarcity affects cognitive ability, drawing on cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research from behavioral science and economics. Their 2013 book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, shows that scarcity in all forms, but especially economic scarcity (i.e. poverty), imposes a significant and measurable tax on the mind, which in turn affects a person’s cognitive abilities and impulse control.


If you’ve ever tried to use the Internet while another person in your household is streaming video or playing video games, you know the challenge presented by bandwidth limits. There is only so much “net” to go around. When the bulk of it is being consumed by the person binge-watching Twin Peaks, it can be nearly impossible just to read your email.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our minds work in a similar way. Our mind’s ability to perform its most crucial functions is seriously limited when we’re being crushed under a burden of poverty and injustice. In one study, the authors tested participants’ general intelligence using a basic test called Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test. In their experiment they divided the group into rich and poor along a median split in their self-reported income. Then they asked the subjects to imagine a relatively modest but unexpected car repair that would cost them $150. They then administered a series of Raven’s Matrices problems. They found no statistical difference between the performance of rich and poor individuals. In the next group they only changed the scenario slightly. In this hypothetical situation, individuals were facing an unexpected $1,500 expense. This time the poorer subjects did significantly worse. Their fluid intelligence scores were much lower and appeared to be less intelligent than those with adequate resources.

Shafir and Mullainathan write,

We can directly measure mental capacity or, as we call it, bandwidth. We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all these components of bandwidth—it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And the effects are large. Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.

Life is unpredictable and whether through personal mistakes or circumstances beyond anyone’s control, we can find ourselves unable to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, or health. Under these circumstances we are deprived not only of material resources but of mental and emotional resources as well.

When I spoke with Shafir about his research he emphasized that nothing in his findings suggests that the poor are any less emotionally awake or that there is anything mentally different or fundamentally deficient about them. Once the preoccupation of a financial stressor is removed, individuals return to their previous cognitive and emotional intelligence. This is crucial in light of past claims that there is a fundamental deficit—whether intellectually or culturally—among certain impoverished groups that keep them poor. (This is not to say that poverty can’t result in lasting neurological effects—for example, children raised in dilapidated housing with substandard infrastructure who are exposed to lead in paint and drinking water.)

In describing these problematic descriptions of the poor in her 2016 book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes,

In 1959, liberal anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term “culture of poverty” to describe psychological and behavioral traits in poor people in underdeveloped countries and “to understand what they had in common with the lower classes all over the world”….The shared traits he identified included resignation, depen-dency, present-time orientation, lack of impulse control, weak ego structure, sexual confusion, inability to delay gratification, and sixty three more.

While this view of the poor is certainly a step away from biological determinism, it still locates the source of poverty in individual temperament.

We now understand that the pressure of scarcity literally taxes our brains; our mind’s field of vision narrows, and the beauty of the world is very often blocked from view. Wonder, by contrast, is an experience that happens to an available mind. Wonder is an experience that sits atop Maslow’s hierarchy and consumes a mind relatively free of the intense worries that press on the poor day after day. Individuals can craft some personal solutions but most of these are based in sheer willpower and difficult to sustain. A person can spend time in nature, engage in meditation, or interact with friends and family. But eventually these efforts will take a backseat in the face of the need to survive.

In short, wonder is very often a privilege for those who have their basic survival and relational needs met. This is not an absolute truth, of course, but the goal of human thriving is not to stumble into an occasional, fleeting moment of joy and awe. It should be something more like cultivating a life in which our minds are able to perceive and respond to the goodness and beauty of the world around us.


Part of my transition out of Christianity included a longing for a new locus of transcendence. In the past, God was the source of all beauty and goodness. Without God I was faced with the prospect that life really is meaningless, as the Christian apologists had warned me. But I couldn’t deny that on most days I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. Not only that, I wanted to get all I could out of life. My desire for love, my appreciation of beauty, and my longing for human connection were undiminished.

If fostering a sense of wonder in response to our world is a core value of humanist communities, we would do well to think about how we might remove the obstacles to experiencing it. One of the most important experiences humanists have to offer those who don’t believe in God is a sense of wonder and awe at the world just as it is. Organizations like Sunday Assembly (whose slogan is “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More.”) explicitly seek to lead individuals to such a place. But when we invite others to “wonder more” without considering their material condition, we’re assuming their fundamental needs are well met. Imagine asking a blind person why he doesn’t have an appreciation for the sunset that is so obviously gorgeous to you, or why a deaf person isn’t responding the same way you are to a moving musical performance.

If people’s material reality has a direct relationship to their mental and emotional experience, isn’t that an important observation for humanist activists and thought leaders? And now there is ample evidence from psychology and brain research that poverty affects our brains, such that our cognitive abilities can drop significantly and our impulse control can all but evaporate temporarily. As we saw, even suggesting financial concerns to a poor person can reduce their cognitive performance to a greater degree than missing an entire night’s sleep.

In pursuit of helping people experience the good life, without God, secular communities should spend considerable time asking: Who has access to this good life and who doesn’t? My experience in congregational community organizing from my days as a pastor informs my view that humanist organizations must fight for economic justice if the full range of human experience is to be more than a privilege for those who can afford it.

When I was a Christian, two things buffered me against the psychological effects of scarcity in my own life. The first was the notion that God would never allow me to experience anything he wouldn’t also help me endure. In the final analysis, God would provide. It’s a simplistic theology and there was certainly more to it, but at the end of the day or when my back was against the wall, that was my belief. That was my faith. The second buffer—a corollary, of sorts—was that in enduring lack and loss, I was honoring God and fulfilling my role as an obedient disciple of Christ. Jesus suffered and died for me and I was called, to a lesser degree of course, to pour out my life for others. I had a story about why bad things happen and how it was all going to work out in the end. In the Christian story, God is going to put all the wrongs of the world to rights one day. After all, Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth. To the degree I felt deprived at times of the basic needs of life, I comforted myself that my suffering was nothing compared to Christ’s and that I would eventually be rewarded. In Romans 8:18, Paul writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” and a few verses later assures, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

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According to Christian teaching, Jesus suffered and died on behalf of humanity, and in so doing redeemed the whole human race. Though the redemptive suffering of Jesus was unique, Christians are often called to suffer for Christ. Their suffering is not redemptive in the absolute sense that Jesus’s was, but it still serves a lesser redemptive purpose. The Catholic Church, more than any other Christian sect, made suffering a central pillar of Christian theology. Under this theology, the poor are uniquely blessed by God. It’s a perverse thought if you’re not accustomed to it, but there is a near-term comfort to the idea. Perhaps all this suffering isn’t just absurd and pointless.

Christianity has an enormous metaphysical motivation and payoff. Atheism does not. Secular humanists are, by definition, materialists. The material world is the whole of the real world, as best as any of us can tell. In an effort to resist the simplistic criticism that life without God is devoid of meaning and joy, atheists sometimes over-make their case, claiming that the world is inherently wonderful. The hard truth, however, is that the world isn’t inherently beautiful and good. As far as we know the universe is indifferent to us and to our suffering. The earth is certainly full of breathtaking beauty. But it’s also full of senseless pain and meaningless loss and death. How can organizations and communities call themselves humanist without a pointed materialist critique? If wonder doesn’t have its source in the divine, then it is entirely material. Humanists who want more people to experience the wonder of the world in spite of there being no God, should be focused on the material concerns of others.

What this means in practice may vary from time to time and place to place, but as Maslow believed (and as contemporary researchers have found), there are universal human needs that are, on average, precursors to a full and free human experience. Movements to end homelessness, the demand for a living wage, the current “Fight for $15,” the ongoing struggle for worker’s rights, and universal access to healthcare—these, along with many other solutions to poverty are vital for humanists to engage with. Of course some humanists are poor themselves and will naturally fight for economic and social justice out of their own self-interest. For the rest, humanism demands solidarity with the oppressed of the world.

The arc of the universe may or may not be bending towards justice. My own sense is that it bends all over the place in a tangled mess. The extent to which it bends towards justice depends on human beings, working in solidarity, bending it by democratic demands of all sorts. The world is not universally and objectively wonderful. One person’s dream is another person’s nightmare. An essential part of being a humanist is working to remove the material obstacles to people’s happiness so they have more mind to appreciate and enjoy life.