Continuing the thinking in my PPND post as to how the economic downturn might bring out positives, there is "The Guilted Age: Spending to Keep Others Afloat" from the Wall Street Journal. Although registration may be required, these paragraphs give the sense of the article:
Donations to many charitable institutions are down, but that may not be the correct measure of the nation's philanthropic impulses. Writing a check to an institution is impersonal, abstract and easy to quit. Far more difficult is canceling the kids' weekly music lessons when you know the piano teacher's husband just lost his job. Or firing the house cleaner who greets you every week with a new photo of her baby.
There's more than a touch of self-interest mixed in with the altruism, of course. Those who can afford luxuries like private piano lessons and weekly house cleaning aren't keen on forfeiting such luxuries -- something families freely acknowledge. But they also say their decisions are shaped in part by the pain that cutbacks may cause others.
"What we buy or stop buying, when we buy, for whom, and how much we spend are never simply decisions to maximize our own interests," said Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton professor who studies the intersection of sociology and economics. "The monies we spend signal which relationships matter to us."
Of course, nothing about us as human beings is simple. There's the aspect of wanting to maintain our lifestyle as long as possible, even in the face of reversals. And there is the "rational" analysis that, from a charitable standpoint, the money spent in this fashion might do more good for more people if given to a charity, but we don't know the people the charity helps; we know those whom we see every day. And, of course, some sellers work to maximize the connection, knowing that it helps. Is this a problem? Or are they, by cultivating relationships, adding value?
I generally stay away from pulling examples from relgious texts when I am talking about positive psychology. I don't want to confuse the two. Further, since I am familiar almost exclusively with Christian texts, using those stories tends to trigger reactions based on feelings toward organized Christian religion, not the points of the story. I'm going to make an exception in this case because "Christian charity" is so often invoked for the poor, sick or disabled who happen to be far away. I think it is those in front of us to whom we should be most attuned, and I think the Bible supports this view.
In the parable of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man that is found in the 16th Chapter of Luke, the rich man steps over Lazarus every day of his life as he leaves his house. Both die, and Lazarus goes to heaven, the rich man to hell. The point I draw is that it wasn't ignoring the needs of the faceless "many" that sent the rich man to hell; it was stepping over the beggar at his doorstep. Likewise, in the 25th Chapter of Matthew, in the story of the last judgment, the judgment is not based not on what those judged did for the "poor" -- it is personalized because what they did or did not do "to one of the least of these" was done or not done for Jesus.
How much evil would there be in the world if we each simply refused to step over those in need? And, what unforseen, amazing benefits might we gain in the process?