The Money Chase April 2011

Secret Fears of the Super-Rich

Does great wealth bring fulfillment? An ambitious study by Boston College suggests not. For the first time, researchers prompted the very rich—people with fortunes in excess of $25 million—to speak candidly about their lives. The result is a surprising litany of anxieties: their sense of isolation, their worries about work and love, and most of all, their fears for their children.
Leonello Calvetti/Bernstein & Andriulli

The October 2008 issue of SuperYacht World confirmed it: money cannot buy happiness. Page 38 of “the international magazine for superyachts of distinction”—if you have to ask what it takes for a yacht to qualify as “super,” you can’t afford to be in the showroom—presented the Martha Ann, a 230-foot, $125 million boat boasting a crew of 20, a master bedroom the size of my house, and an interior gaudy enough to make Saddam Hussein blush. The feature story on the Martha Ann was published just as the S&P 500 suffered its worst week since 1933, shedding $1.4 trillion over the course of the week, or about 2,240 Martha Anns every day. Still, one of the captions accompanying the lavish photos betrayed the status anxiety that afflicts even the highest echelons of wealth. “From these LOFTY HEIGHTS,” the caption promised, “guests will be able to look down on virtually any other yacht.” Virtually any other yacht! One imagines the prospective owner wincing at this disclaimer, pained by the knowledge that the world would still contain superyachts more super than his own, that at least one gazillionaire in Saint-Tropez harbor would likely be able to peer over his gunwales and down at the Martha Ann.

The lesson that Mammon is a false or inadequate god goes back a long way, and a glossy spread in SuperYacht World is just one place to relearn it. Another is Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, which since 1970 has minted a diverse array of studies of the wealthy. For four years, the Gates Foundation has supported an effort by the center to determine exactly how the American wealthy think and live—and in particular how, when, and to what degree they make the shift from accumulating fortunes to giving them away philanthropically. (The John Templeton Foundation, which is concerned with spiritual matters, kicked in additional funding to study correlations between wealth, philanthropy, and religion.) The project has produced one of the most remarkable documents in the center’s history: a survey that invited the very rich to write freely about how prosperity has shaped their lives and those of their children. From the anonymity of their home computers, the respondents wrote anything from a few words to a few pages, volunteering not only their net worth and sources of wealth but also their innermost hopes, fears, and anxieties.

Also see:

Surveying the Super Rich
See some of the questions that 165 households answered for the Boston College study

The responses, which run to 500 pages and fill three plastic binders on the fifth floor of Boston College’s McGuinn Hall, constitute what the center’s director, the sociologist Paul G. Schervish, calls “an extraordinary sample of confession, memoir, and apologia” from the super-rich. (The researchers admit that this sample is not representative, being inevitably skewed toward those wealthy people who are willing to offer their confessions to a computer screen.) Roughly 165 households responded, 120 of which have at least $25 million in assets. The respondents’ average net worth is $78 million, and two report being billionaires. The goal, say the survey’s architects, was to weed out all but those at or approaching complete financial security. Most of the survey’s respondents are wealthy enough to ensure that in any catastrophe short of Armageddon, they will still be dining on Chateaubriand while the rest of us are spit-roasting rats over trash-can fires.

The results of the study are not yet public, but The Atlantic was granted access to portions of the research, provided the anonymity of the subjects was strictly maintained. The center expects to present the full conclusions gradually at upcoming conferences and to publish them over the next several months. The study is titled “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth,” but given that the joys tend to be self-evident, it focuses primarily on the dilemmas. The respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. Indeed, they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes. Most of them still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess. (Remember: this is a population with assets in the tens of millions of dollars and above.) One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, says that what matters most to him is his Christianity, and that his greatest aspiration is “to love the Lord, my family, and my friends.” He also reports that he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.

Such complaints sound, on their face, preposterous. But just as the human body didn’t evolve to deal well with today’s easy access to abundant fat and sugars, and will crave an extra cheeseburger when it shouldn’t, the human mind, apparently, didn’t evolve to deal with excess money, and will desire more long after wealth has become a burden rather than a comfort. A vast body of psychological evidence shows that the pleasures of consumption wear off through time and depend heavily on one’s frame of reference. Most of us, for instance, occasionally spoil ourselves with outbursts of deliberate and perhaps excessive consumption: a fancy spa treatment, dinner at an expensive restaurant, a shopping spree. In the case of the very wealthy, such forms of consumption can become so commonplace as to lose all psychological benefit: constant luxury is, in a sense, no luxury at all.

Taken together, the survey responses make a compelling case that being fantastically wealthy—especially when the wealth is inherited rather than earned—is not a great deal more fulfilling than being merely prosperous. Among other woes, the survey respondents report feeling that they have lost the right to complain about anything, for fear of sounding—or being—ungrateful. Those with children worry that their children will become trust-fund brats if their inheritances are too large—or will be forever resentful if those inheritances (or parts of them) are instead bequeathed to charity. The respondents also confide that they feel their outside relationships have been altered by, and have in some cases become contingent on, their wealth. “Very few people know the level of my wealth, and if they did, in most cases I believe it would change our relationship,” writes one respondent. Another notes, “I start to wonder how many people we know would cut us off if they didn’t think they could get something from us.” Robert A. Kenny, who has trained as a psychologist and is one of the survey’s architects, says that extreme wealth can take away some of the basic joys of living—for instance, that some wealthy people don’t look forward to the holidays, “because they were always expected to give really good presents.” When you’re a millionaire, Kenny says, expensive gifts merely meet expectations. That was a pretty good present, the recipients might respond. But last year, you gave me a car.

Other people “glorify wealth and think that it means that the wealthy are smarter, wiser, more ‘blessed’ or some other such crock,” explains one survey respondent. “I feel extremely lucky, but it’s hard to get other, non-wealthy people to believe it’s not more significant than that … The novelty of money has worn off.”

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Graeme Wood is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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