Monday, March 14, 2011

Secret Fears of the Super-Rich

He found that the rich—especially the inheritors of vast fortunes—have unique sets of worries, and face the added difficulty of knowing that many despise or envy them. "Often the word rich becomes a pejorative," Kenny says. "It rhymes with bitch. I've been in rooms and seen people stand up and say, 'I'm Bob Kenny, and I'm rich.' And then they burst into tears."

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.

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. 

There seem to be two distinct sets of problems with being rich. One set comes from society. Other people treat you differently, and often worse, if you have lots of money. This is the kind of thing Ayn Rand complained about at length, along with the claim that such attitudes would result in the downfall of civilization. She takes things to an extreme, but it is true that if society does not respect wealth creation then we will get a lot less of it. People who earned a lot of money honestly* should never be ashamed of it, and if they are, that means something is wrong with our culture.

The second set of problems is psychological. Sometimes it can be hard to disentangle this from cultural conditioning, but it seems that money really does not make people happy. The most it can do is solve almost all of the problems that the outside world throws at you. That is not enough to satisfy most people, and it may even lead to dissatisfaction, to the extent that humans seem to have a natural impulse to be problem-solvers:

 Work is what fills most people's days, and it provides the context in which they interact with others. A life of worklessness, however financially comfortable, can easily become one of aimlessness, of estrangement from the world. The fact that most people imagine it would be paradise to never have to work does not make the experience any more pleasant in practice.

The problems of the super-rich are a small subset of a larger social problem. People in rich developed countries live in an environment that is utterly alien to the workings of the neurotypical human brain. The only people who will be truly comfortable with this environment are people whose minds are naturally abnormal, or those who have painstakingly reprogrammed themselves with the right kind of philosophy. Everyone else will be as nervous and confused and neurotic as a poodle in a mansion.

Compared to the miserable existence of most people throughout history, this is a good problem to have, but it is still a problem, and I have no clue how it might be solved on a societal level.

* 'Honestly' here means via any kind of voluntary exchange, anything does not involve politics, government contracts, fraud, or crime.

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