A Paradoxical, Pervasive Prejudice

Most people want to be far wealthier, but dislike the wealthy.

What do you know about the wealthy? Do you know many well-to-do people? Know enough, well enough, to generalize about them?

Like old age, the notion of “wealth” is of course relative. Since 1970, Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy has conducted several studies of the wealthy. Mostly recently, they asked 165 households with at least $25 million in assets to write freely about how prosperity has shaped their lives and those of their children. Their average net worth was $78m, with two being billionaires.

The results of the study are not yet public, but The Atlantic was granted access to portions of the research which form the basis of Graeme Wood’s April essay titled, “Secret Fears of the Super-Rich“.

Fascinating read. The bottom line, to paraphrase Woods, the respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties including a sense of isolation, worries about work and love, and fears for their children.

A few excerpts:

A vast body of psychological evidence shows that the pleasures of consumption wear off through time and depend heavily on one’s frame of evidence. 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.

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.

The poor-little-rich-kid retort is so obvious—and seemingly so sensible—that the rich themselves often internalize it, and as a result become uncomfortable in their interactions with the non-wealthy. Once people cross a certain financial threshold, they have a tendency to hang out with one another, to enjoy the company of other people who know that money relieves some burdens but not others.

Interesting how clearly the poor-little-rich-kid retort shapes the comments at the end of Wood’s essay.

Our church has recently updated its “welcoming” statement which reads: We welcome all people—the poor and the rich; the young and the old; people who are single, married, blessed, divorced, separated, partnered, or widowed; people of all abilities; people of all sexual orientations and gender identities; and people of all nations and ethnic backgrounds.

Some probably assume the rich may not need as warm a welcome as the other referenced people and groups. But Boston College’s “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth” study suggests they do.

Understanding, care, and empathy shouldn’t be rationed out as zero-sum qualities.