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.