Saturday, June 11, 2011

Debt Increases Self Esteem?

Everywhere I've turned recently I've been seeing the headline flashed at me. I've seen it running on the treadmill at the gym, I heard it on the radio, and it's all over Twitter.

 "Debt increases self esteem."

It seems that some folks at Ohio State University crunched some numbers and found out that at least in younger adults, holding debt actually increases self esteem. Here are two things from the study:

They looked at how... debt [was] related to people's self-esteem and sense of mastery--their belief that they were in control of their life, and that they had the ability to achieve their goals. 
Results showed that those in the bottom 25 percent in total family income got the largest boost from holding debt--the more debt they held, both education and credit card, the bigger the positive impact on their self-esteem and mastery.

Reading this article got me thinking about some of my early experiences working in community mental health. It didn't matter how impoverished my clients were, I always knew they would have a pager, call waiting, and cable television (back in the day, these were all the rage!). I always wondered why I'd be working with families that would go hungry at times but never give up call waiting. It just didn't make sense to me.

A supervisor at the time scolding me for being judgmental and not very understanding of the perspective of my clients. She explained the importance of status symbols. People who have very little will often use what they have to get the things that are associated with feeling good or feeling important. "We live in a world that we make ourselves feel better with things," my supervisor explained. "You're job, if you are up to it, is find a way to help your clients feel better in other ways."

She also pointed out who I had all the cool things (indeed, I had a pager (and needed a supply of quarters so I could use the nearest payphone when someone "important" called me), I had a Sega video game system, cable tv, and call waiting. Wasn't I important? At least, didn't I surround myself with things that were associated with being important.

I wish these researchers from OSU had looked at the qualitative nature of the group they were studying. Just why did that bottom 25% feel the most self esteem from their debt? Have they collected the most of whatever the modern day feel good gadgets area?

More importantly, can we talk about how we can feel better in ways that don't involve consumption or ownership of things?

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