California, where I live and work, is the world’s fifth-largest economy, thanks in part to many of the kind of high-net-worth individuals who were studied here. Even though the state’s GDP is doing so well, millions of people who live here don’t feel any of the benefits.
Almost 20 percent of California’s population lives below the federal poverty line—2 million are kids. I know humans are notoriously bad at learning from history, but I still wonder at the fact that we’ve never fully grasped the notion that the more extreme the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, the higher the likelihood of a society becoming unstable for everyone (see: the French Revolution).
The super-wealthy in California and beyond remain largely untouched by the unsustainable tendencies of our economic system. But as drought and fire and displacement become more common, even the superrich will eventually come face-to-face with their place in humanity—as part of it.
As we move into a new decade of uncertainty around the quality of our shared infrastructure and the stability of world political and economic systems, it seems that the only way forward is for individuals and private interests to wake up to their responsibility to the collective. Deploying their accumulated wealth for the public good would not be solely altruistic—it would also be an investment in the ability to continue playing the game of acquiring wealth.
Certainly the rich can be greedy, self-centered, and overly focused on image, appearance, and their peer group. They can also be unhappy with their level of success. But I’d argue that you can find those elements at all economic levels. I’d be more interested in levels of happiness within groups (i.e., are successful hedge-fund traders more or less unhappy than those who build conventional businesses), and evaluating which groups at various socioeconomic levels are most happy and what characteristics contribute to that. That would be a much harder article to write, with difficult research. But the answers might actually benefit readers by giving them concrete directions to pursue happiness versus an article that’s really about why a non-rich person can have moral superiority over a really rich one—which, quite frankly, is what this article is about, in my view.
Orange County, Calif.
I recall reading what I think was a Wall Street Journal article in the late ’80s summarizing research that examined incomes and happiness in a novel way. The researchers started with entry-level incomes and asked respondents, “How much more money would you need to be happy?” On average, as I remember it, they said 15 percent more. They then went to folks earning 15 percent more than the entry level and asked, “How much more money would you need to be happy?” You guessed it, the answer was about 15 percent more.