who’s afraid of a big bad bank account?

Upon glancing at the article tease: Secret Fears of the Rich, which ran across a recent cover of The Atlantic, I imagine many readers were quick to smirk, “Yeah, that must be a pretty short article.” But after reading said article (“The Fortunate Ones,” by Graeme Wood) it is clear that, regardless of its immense purchasing power, one thing that money clearly doesn’t buy is clarity.

The article explores a recent study called “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth,” which was conducted at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy by surveying over 160 families who are “at or approaching complete financial security.” “But given that the joys tend to be self-evident,” notes Wood, “it focuses primarily on the dilemmas.”

The results are a bit surprising. “The respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family.”

Taken on a whole, the study is “an extraordinary sample of confession, memoir, and apologia,” says the center’s director, Paul G. Schervish.

On the one hand there are the more obvious clichéd truths: like money can’t buy happiness (though it can certainly help). “Money is like fire,” quips Schervish. “It will warm your feet or it will burn your socks off.” 

On the other hand are the more distressing problems associated with the love-hate relationship our society has with money, and the wealthy in particular. “The poor-little-rich-kid retort is so obvious,” writes Wood, “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 tend to enjoy the company of other people who know that money relieves some burdens but not others.”

The gates of the gated community work both ways. They may appear to keep one safe and secure from unwanted forces outside, but they also trap their inhabitants in a prison of their own making, allowing the wealthy to become further estranged and desensitized to the world (still their world, too) around them.

“Often the word rich becomes a pejorative,” notes Robert Kenny, a psychologist at the North Bridge Advisory Group, and one of the architects of the survey.

Through Kenny’s counseling work, “he found that the rich,” writes Woods, “have unique sets of worries, and face the added difficulty of knowing that many despise or envy them.”

Despise or envy. Now that’s quite a double-edged sword. But as our society has shown again and again, the only thing we love more than the rise to stardom of our celebrated celebrities, is basking in the faded glory of their epic demise. And so it is with the uber-wealthy, as well.

Which can be problematic. For all of us.

No doubt most people feel most comfortable with those they share similar experiences and/or outlooks with, and this often seems especially true of the especially affluent, who seemingly self-segregate with a bit too much ease through the smoke and mirrors of the upper-echelons of society, while constantly pulling at society’s purse strings from their secure posts. But we do a disservice to everyone when the uber-affluent are shunned to such an estranged existence. For if the reality of the extremely rich is keeping up the Joneses (or, more appropriately, as Woods notes, “the Gateses”) rather than interacting and existing in the often too-real reality routinely experienced by the remaining 98% of their fellow citizens, then their unreal reality of constantly being out-of-touch is, unfortunately, a certainty.

And as this recent study shows, an out-of-touch, estranged, exceptionally affluent, elite, powerful segment of society is not good for anyone. Not even its financial benefactors.

What can be done about this? I’m not entirely sure…

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Filed under Accountable Wealth, Class

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