Why It Sucks to Be Rich

To paraphrase famed scholar Christopher Wallace- more money means more problems. As paradoxical as this claim may seem given yet another famed scholar more recently claimed “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems, must not have had enough money to solve ’em”, Mr Wallace, or Biggie Smalls as he was better known to those who had no respect for his parents’ wishes for his name, seems to have been on to something. Case in point- there exists exceptionally well paid psychologists who specialize in helping their exceptionally rich patients cope with having tremendous wealth, generally charging in the realm of $450 to a $1000+ per hour for their services.

Known professionally as “wealth therapists” and occasionally “money councilors”, these mental health professionals offer an admittedly niche, but still in-demand, service- listening to the obscenely wealthy vent, all while somehow managing to restrain themselves from getting out a tiny violin and playing it while the patient expounds on their woes.

So what exactly are these problems that the richest of the rich struggle with?

It turns out, ones which are pretty fundamental to humans humaning, as we’ll get into, including a rather interesting experiment concerning a Mice Utopia that perhaps best demonstrates what can happen when you have everything you could ever want.

So let’s jump into what the most first world of all first world problems are.

To begin with, the most commonly reported problem wealth therapists deal with when counseling the wealthy is the isolation they feel as a result of their Smaug-esque hoard of money. (We can only imagine the paper cuts they get when presumably using cash to wipe their tears away.)

Concurring with the former assessment, we have the results of a 4 year study fittingly titled – The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth. As the name of the paper suggests, wealth comes with a number of positives and negatives that may not be apparent to someone whose bank account primarily contains the wrong kind of zeros. One of the main drawbacks revealed in this study was the propensity for the wealthy to feel immensely isolated from their fellow man. Or to quote a client of a wealth psychologists called Robert A. Kenny on the matter – “Wealth can be a barrier to connecting with other people.”

While a knee jerk reaction from that might be to once again whip out a tiny violin and start playing, consider that meaningful connections to your fellow humans are one of the most fundamental urges to being a human.

As to why wealth imparts such isolation, even sometimes when surrounded by people, there are several facets to this. For example, one issue here, which can even ruin relationships that might have otherwise been fine, is the constant wondering if those around you only want to be your friend or partner because they want something from you. Naturally, given there are many individuals in this world perfectly happy to leech off others with a smile on their face and otherwise capable of seeming genuine about it, there are almost always these people around the wealthy, sometimes mixed with those who actually care, and somethings not. Telling the difference isn’t apparently always easy.

On top of this, as noted by one well-off unnamed woman responding to how wealth interferes with her relationships, she states she has particular difficulty when revealing her financial situation to men, who generally feel emasculated by her. She sums up, their role as “provider had been usurped”.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by wealthy men who opine they find it difficult to know for sure if women they’re interested in are really interested in them in return, or if they are only interested in their money.

Moving on from there, there is also the potential of those you otherwise really care for and maybe even formerly cared for you becoming jealous of your financial state, or in times of their own financial strain getting upset at you for not offering to solve their problem with your excess. And even if you happily do so without any strings or even needing to be asked, there’s another problem of potential resentment or the like that can, and does, occasionally rise from that- for example, some individuals after feeling a bit like a charity case, and lesser in general for needing your help in the first place. This all further creates tension between the two of you, which can strain even the best of genuine friendships.

Beyond these potential pitfalls to social connection, making such associations with those of more humble standing can even be dangerous, as we’ve covered in detail in our article on the reality of winning a big ticket lottery for a shocking number of those who win.

It turns out as will come as a shock to absolutely no one, while most people are generally decent enough, a small percentage are not. And this can cause major issues when you’re wealthy, particularly if wealthy in a high profile way.

Consider the case of one Jack Whittaker who already had a net worth of $17 million when he won $314.9 million in 2002 (about $400 million today). Thanks to his wealth being more high profile and extreme, he was robbed multiple times directly after. There were also multiple plots to have him murdered, even by those he’d formerly associated with. For example, in one case a couple of women he knew attempted to drug him to death. Apparently the plan was, before anyone noticed he was dead, to try to access his accounts and steal as much of his money they could get their hands on.

Beyond that, multiple frivolous lawsuits against him followed his lotto win, with people and businesses coming out of the woodworks to sue him for anything they could think of. On top of that, his granddaughter suddenly went missing, with her body later found wrapped in a tarp and unceremoniously dumped. A few years later, his daughter overdosed on drugs and died- a not totally uncommon thing among the children of the ultra rich, and something we’ll talk more about in a bit.

Naturally, Whittaker would later state of winning one of the biggest prizes in lottery history: “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”

While all of this is a rather extreme example, it turns out many big ticket lotto winners have these sort of issues, as well as the same basic issues many of the more long term wealthy individuals tend to complain about. Simply in the case of lotto winners, this seems in many cases magnified via the high profile nature of their sudden wealth and not having a lifetime to learn to cope and adjust relationships, as well as put in place safeguards. (This, among other reasons, is why lotto representatives strongly recommend wealth counseling to winners to help forestall many issues before they happen- advice that is generally ignored.)

Now, from all of this, you might have gathered that one way around such problems is to simply keep the fact that you’re rich a secret. And, it turns out, many among the wealthy do just this, a phenomenon wealth therapists refer to as “stealth wealth”.

But, it turns out, even this doesn’t always solve the issue of social isolation, at least. To begin with, hiding various major facets of your life isn’t exactly a recipe for developing a deep and intimate relationship with someone. But more than that, regardless of whether your friends know or not, there is the potential disconnect in your ability to relate to the day to day lives of those of lesser financial standing and they to yours.

The obvious solution to all of this is simply only associate with other elite of the 1%, something that by definition automatically considerably limits the potential populace around you you can comfortably interact with and get close to.

This brings us to the next problem- obviously not all rich people are created equally and another issue that seems ingrained in human nature is the desire to keep up with the Joneses, regardless of your socioeconomic status.

The uber-wealthy are not exempt from this weird human tick. For example, consider a statistic recounted in the book Richistan, examining the lives of the wealthy. In it, it notes that some 20% of households in the United States with around $10 million in assets spend literally all of their income each year. They expound that a large amount of this annual income is simply used to keep up with their even wealthier friends and neighbours. Sort of a rich person’s version of being unemployed with barely a dime to your name and having your middle class friends invite you out to dinner. Your budget might be barely able to handle a McChicken sandwich at McDonald’s, but if all your friends are going to Olive Garden, you’re probably going to go too, unless there is literally no way you can think of to pay for the meal.

While the rich person version of this involving taking a private jet to an equally private island rented with friends, instead of a more sensible vacation, probably has you almost skilled enough to join the London Symphony with all the practice you’ve been getting on your little violin while reading this, rich or poor, human nature is human nature. And living at the edge of your means, even if insanely wealthy, is still stressful.

If you still need a bit more practice on that violin, moving on to the next issue, we have the case of those who either didn’t work for their money or worked for it and perhaps decided to retire extremely early. While you might think they’re living the dream, it turns out this is probably the worst issue of all- extreme boredom and inability to find fulfillment in one’s day-to-day life.

While you may no longer be able to hear us over the sound of all the violins, without the structure and sense of purpose things like work bring, many rich individuals find themselves struggling with depression, aimlessness, and end up feeling even more isolated from the world.

In the end, humans, and many other animals it turns out, need a sense of purpose, which is no better illustrated than That Time a Guy Tried to Build a Utopia for Mice and It All Went to Hell.

In a nutshell, a researcher named John B Calhoun made a world for mice in which everything they could ever want was provided and they did not have to work for any of it. While initially the population of mice exploded from 8 to 620 members, within a year populations started declining despite infinite resources and, a year from then, the entire civilization of mice were dead.

As to why, the researchers observed that social bonds effectively broke down and male mice, without a reason to defend their territory or food source (since both were plentiful) became dejected, forming cliques that randomly attacked one another for seemingly no reason. In the lead up to this, certain of the male mice began continually mating with whatever mouse happened to be around, be it male or female. Many of the mice also began to simply kill and eat one another, despite the abundance of other food sources; mothers abandoned babies, mice would crowd together in groups of 50 or more in pens designed to hold 15 individuals, while pens with plentiful bedding sat empty inches away.

Most intriguing of all were a small group of males and females who withdrew themselves from mouse society altogether to live in the upper levels of the enclosure, a group that Calhoun dubbed, “The Beautiful Ones”.

These mice did nothing but sleep, eat and groom themselves (this gave them noticeably smoother looking coats which, along with their isolation meaning no scars from attacks, led to their nickname). In the end, these mice seemingly lost interest in all meaningful social bonds, refusing to interact at all with other mice, including ceasing to mate.

Fascinatingly, even when the population receded to levels where the mice had previously flourished, they refused to breed or go back to their old way of interacting with one another.

A few months after the last birth on day 600, all of the mice were dead. Calhoun noted that although the population had survived for many months afterwards, it had effectively died on the 315th day- the day social bonds broke down, stating: “Their spirit has died (‘the first death’). They are no longer capable of executing the more complex behaviors compatible with species survival. The species in such settings die.”

If this sort of seemingly oddball behavior is reminding you a bit of the stereotypical spoiled ultra-rich kid who doesn’t make it past their 20s, well, from this and other such studies, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising.

On this one, moving beyond the wealthy, we have the stereotypical retiree who never finds anything to do after they leave work and dies shortly thereafter. Whereas their more active brethren, who find a new purpose and things to do, often live significantly longer.

In the end, rich or poor, having a purpose or something to work towards, for whatever reason, seems to be yet another fundamental need.

On a potentially related note, being unable to enjoy the simple things in life is another common theme with the tremendously wealthy, with one expert on the matter stating quite matter-of-factly – “extreme wealth can take away some of the basic joys of living.”

As you can imagine, the wealthy are keen to avoid passing these problems on to their children, with a key fear being that endless resources will “rob their children of ambition”. Failing to forestall this one is yet another log to throw on the fire, given a fundamental joy in life is watching one’s kids grow into healthy and reasonably happy adults- not watch them despondent, lonely, depressed and killing themselves because there is no point to anything for them.

From this, it should come as no surprise that one of the things the wealth psychologists are paid for is for advice on making sure their kids don’t end up like that, as well as counseling for the silver spooned’ brats themselves.

This brings us to the final of the chief issues commonly reported- apparently extreme sense of guilt at their life situation compared to others.

Combining this altogether, according to at least one wealth therapists (the aforementioned Kenny) – one easy street ticket out of a lot of these issues for the wealthy and their children is to discover the extreme satisfaction of philanthropy. This tends to build relationships that wouldn’t have been there before, including with those interested in similar causes to you, fixes to some extent the guilt problem, gives one a sense of purpose that is genuinely important to the lives of others and a community, etc. etc.

That said, even this is not without its pitfalls, and in some cases means a much higher profile for your wealth and activities.

Perhaps illustrating both the great positives and negatives here in the most extreme way, we have Bill & Melinda Gates- a couple who have dedicated the latter half of their lives and their entire fortune to helping solve some of the world’s major problems, as well as trying to save as many lives as possible in the process, including probably already having saved more lives through their work and money than any two humans in history. If that wasn’t enough, they have also set up their organization in such a way that it will continue to be a boon to humanity seemingly as long as civilization exists.

Despite all of this, if the comment sections of our YouTube channel any time we even just mention the name Bill Gates is any indication, a rather surprising percentage of people loathe the two of them with every fiber of their being.

In the end, no matter what you do, inevitably some aren’t going to agree with your decisions and where you put your money for many possible reasons, some of which because you may have genuinely screwed up. After all, you are still human, as are those working in organizations you may support, so along the way occasionally mistakes will be made, and in a more high profile way for yourself. Further, if you’re focusing your efforts on a given area, you’ll inevitably have a clearer picture of a problem than many others have, so you can even be in the right and still be perceived as wrong. And regardless, there are no perfect solutions to complex problems, so you’ll make more people mad that way when you knowingly support a solution that is flawed in some way, simply because you think it has the greatest net benefit.

Combined with the already inherent dislike of the wealthy a not inconsiderable number of people have, it would seem even if you’re the greatest philanthropist in history, a rather large percentage of people will hate you. And some will hate you precisely because of your specific philanthropic efforts. Of course, if you’re super rich and aren’t giving to various causes, many will hate you for that too.

But in any event, in the end, with all of these problems with wealth and more, if you ever feign to vent about them to just about anyone, you’re almost guaranteed to get a rather unsympathetic reaction given your socioeconomic status, and the fact that you spent Christmas flying to Fiji in your private jet with your stunningly beautiful wife… who you might otherwise vent to, but you know good and well she doesn’t care about you and is only with you for your money.

And that’s where wealth psychologists come in- someone you can pay $1,000 an hour to to care…

Of course, in the end I think most of us would still happily trade our current set of problems for that of the extremely affluent. But, it turns out, rich or poor, human nature is human nature. While money can solve most problems, there are some things extremely fundamental to humaning (and apparently micing) that an abundance of resources can paradoxically rob you of.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

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8 comments

  • One person said that money is like having fat in your diet: it is absolutely essential, but too much is a hindrance, rather than a help, to the good life.
    The advantages of money quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. It is hard to be happy when you have to count every penny. It’s possible, but not easy. It is easier if you are secure and comfortable. However, I doubt if the prosperous are markedly happier than the merely comfortable, or the rich much happier than the merely prosperous, or the billionaire happier than the millionaire. By that stage it is more likely to be a hindrance.

  • April N Underwood

    I love your pod cast . I play brainfood everyday at work on pandora. I would give you a billion stars if I could . You guys banter is superb. Love the facts and the fun you guys bring to my day . Thank you .

  • My tiny violin is around here somewhere . . .

  • It isn’t easy being wealthy, as so many think. We do feel isolated and know that if we complain, we will just be laughed at. Also, throw in the fact that most wealthy people, have family who are not. That in itself brings up a whole new set of problems. I miss feeling like I belong……anywhere. Holly in Hidden Hills and Hawaii

  • if you hit the lottery go through a lawyer and demand that your personal info be given to no one. then dont tell anyone!

  • I haven’t been particularly wealthy and people STILL ask me for money! It can be anyone and everyone, family, friends, charities, bill collectors and so on.

  • Ragnarredbeard

    To add to that, note that in some states you can’t be anonymous when you collect.

    So to mitigate that, form a trust or corporation before you sign the ticket and turn it in. I recommend a Delaware corporation if you’re gonna go that route. (google Delaware corporation) Your lawyer then picks up the check as the “agent of the corporation” vice being “Mr Smith’s attorney”.

  • Yea, I’d rather have these “problems” than worry if I can make rent, pay for my next meal, or have to tough out serious health issues because basic healthcare is a luxury now. Being rich is far better than living below the poverty line. These aren’t problems, these are the sophomoric musings of people who have too much. Why not hire a violinist to play a sad tune? The wealthy will never know true adversity and are unworthy of pity. The wealthy widened the divide and spurned financial inequity. Cry me a river and sail a Yacht down it.

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