secret fears of the super-rich

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.

The responses, which run to 500 pages and fill three plastic binders on the fifth floor of Boston College’s McGuinn Hall, constitute what the center’s director, the sociologist Paul G. Schervish, calls “an extraordinary sample of confession, memoir, and apologia” from the super-rich. (The researchers admit that this sample is not representative, being inevitably skewed toward those wealthy people who are willing to offer their confessions to a computer screen.) Roughly 165 households responded, 120 of which have at least $25 million in assets. The respondents’ average net worth is $78 million, and two report being billionaires. The goal, say the survey’s architects, was to weed out all but those at or approaching complete financial security. Most of the survey’s respondents are wealthy enough to ensure that in any catastrophe short of Armageddon, they will still be dining on Chateaubriand while the rest of us are spit-roasting rats over trash-can fires.

The results of the study are not yet public, but The Atlantic was granted access to portions of the research, provided the anonymity of the subjects was strictly maintained. The center expects to present the full conclusions gradually at upcoming conferences and to publish them over the next several months. The study is titled “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth,” but given that the joys tend to be self-evident, it focuses primarily on the dilemmas. 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. (Remember: this is a population with assets in the tens of millions of dollars and above.) One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, says that what matters most to him is his Christianity, and that his greatest aspiration is “to love the Lord, my family, and my friends.” He also reports that he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.

via The Atlantic.