Wealth: Its Joys and Its Discontents ~ The Boston College Survey

The Atlantic was given a preliminary peek at survey results from 165 wealthy households soon to be released by Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy under the title, The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth”.
Average net worth per household surveyed was $78 million with 120 exceeding $25 million. See a copy of the survey questionnaire below.

Atlantic April 2011,
Secret Fears of The Super Rich

According to the author:

  1. The survey was funded largely by the Gates Foundation and to some extent by The John Templeton Foundation.
  2. Respondents were encouraged to write freely (and anonymously) from their computers about how wealth has shaped their lives and their children’s lives. Some wrote a few words, others a few pages.
  3. Most respondents do not consider themselves to be financially secure and would require at least a quarter more than they currently have to achieve it.
  4. Being wealthy, especially inherited wealth as opposed to having earned it, is hardly more fulfilling than being merely prosperous.
  5. Some respondents report they have “lost the right to complain about anything” for fear of sounding (or being) ungrateful.
  6. Those with children fear that their children will become trust fund dependents if their inheritance is too large, or forever resentful if those inheritances go instead to charity.
  7. Outside relationships have been altered by wealth, and some are contingent upon wealth. 

“Most people don’t know the level of my wealth; if they did it would change our relationship.”
“How many people we know would cut us off if they didn’t think they could get something from us?”

8.     Extreme wealth can take away some of the joys of living. Some wealthy people don’t look forward to the Holidays because gift-giving becomes complicated. They are always expected to give really good presents. Expensive gifts merely meet expectations.

9.     Some non-wealthy people glorify wealth, assuming that the wealthy are smarter, wiser, more blessed.

“I feel extremely lucky, but it’s hard to get non-wealthy people to believe it’s not more significant than that.”

10.     Respondents who earn their wealth worry less about their self-worth than those who inherit. But unlike the inheritors, those who earned it have to contend with transition from the workaday world to a world where work is voluntary. Some friends disappear; others appear, perhaps attracted by the newfound wealth.

11.     There’s a subcategory of “accidental earners” who signed on with the company at the right time and received stock option windfalls. Such wealth can feel almost like unearned inheritance.

12.     The rich have a severe allergy to discussing their dilemmas in public.

As of this writing, the article has generated 125 online comments, eliciting a cyber-dialogue (of sorts) between wealthy and non-wealthy readers.  Some examples:

 “No one is disputing that the rich have their own problems. But these are not real problems. A real problem is significantly damaging your life…like poverty, paralyzing illness, death of a loved one”.

That comment sparked a fervent reply from an apparently wealthy young woman:
“I’m not trying to boast that I’m rich…I want you to understand that I know what I’m talking about. My sister got sick two years ago and after lots of tests and no definitive diagnosis, she passed away. But we got very little sympathy from anyone. I couldn’t believe how many people, instead of saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ said something like, ‘my father died last year be we didn’t have the finances that you do. Maybe now you understand what it’s like for the rest of us who don’t have the money’. The worst is that you can’t talk about your grief with many people because so many feel you don’t have the right to be hurt or grieving. They somehow think you can just pay for those horrible feelings to magically go away. In times of personal tragedy you feel more lonely and disliked than ever. Instead of sympathy, people start throwing the ‘you have no idea what it’s like not to have money’ card at you… 

“Months later my nephew was the victim of an attempted kidnapping. The trauma our family now faces cannot be described. But again there is very little sympathy from most people. We get many threats and extortion attempts. Like most families we keep these private because we don’t want to attract more potential problems.

“What I’m saying is that when you are known to have money, people tend to treat you with indignation. They act like you can buy your way out of any problem. They think you are impervious to any bad feelings, tragedy, sorrow or depression. They treat you as though you are the reason they are having so many difficulties.

“I am not writing this to ask for sympathy. I’m writing to ask people to have a universal understanding…that when you’re rich it’s not super-easy, not all champagne and parties.”

Interestingly, 102 of the 125 online commentators liked her response.
  "One must be very naïve or a true believer to think that ‘money is allocated based on the amount of our work and the scarcity of our skills’. Please look around at the inherited wealth and the wealth that is allocated to senior executives who have absolutely no skin in the game. They did not capitalize the business nor did they assume any debt. They went to school, usually at their parent’s expense, in a country that is very unusual on this earth. So by an accident of birth and being given an opportunity in this unusual country, they got rich. To think this is a fair allocation based on their ‘unique’ skills is to ignore all of the accidents that put them in the right place at the right time.”

“Suppose somebody like the person who waits on your table, caddies your golf clubs or mows your grass had genuine sympathy for you. How could they show it? Could they walk up to you and say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss. If you want to talk about it I am here.’”

“We do spend time with [other] richer people, mainly because they ‘get it’. It’s just less stressful when those people understand that you can’t pay for everyone and for everything all the time. We are rich. The word gets around. People know. You see people looking at you. You get requests for money, stories of hardship, etc. And we try to be sympathetic and open-minded as possible. But if we listened and responded to everyone’s request, we would spend 30 hours a day.

“I was a paid staff member in one of the largest privately held companies in the U.S. One of the top executives was never home to enjoy the growing years of his children. Personal staff members (bodyguards) accompanied not only him but each of his children, the vulnerable targets of evil.”

“If you are wealthy, let me give you some advice from a working class Joe. If you invite a person to a place that’s out of their social class, be upfront and honest that the evening’s on you. If we meet at a café or coffeehouse, let me buy. It is a sort of pride thing for some of us.”

“I’m in the top 99% net worth category. I made my money in technology whereas my partner is an inheritor.  When I made my money quickly, I almost immediately found that I had been disconnected from lifelong friends. People hate you for what they believe the money has done for you when it’s a gigantic proposition to manage wealth but nobody will acknowledge I have a job just doing that. People do their best to take bites out of our family, trying to harm us to make themselves feel better about their lesser fortunate situations up to and including trying to break apart our marriage to tear us down. I am saddened for them and for the friendships lost because people simply couldn’t handle the money I made, even if we don’t live ostentatiously.”

“I am worth $3 million so I’m not super-rich. However I do worry about affection; whether my wife married me for me or for my money. She brings it up quite a lot.”

“I spent about five years renovating a house, rebuilding it as a genuinely stately home where my wife and I raised our children. It was a source of real pride and pleasure for me. After a financial reversal I was forced to sell it. The buyer was a Texas zillionaire who gave it to his 25-year old single daughter. I still drive by the place once in a while. If the lights are on, I imagine the girl stuck inside sitting alone in what is to her just an over-sized hotel suite. Her parents could only give her a house; my parents gave me a life in which I could build houses.”

“The real point of this article is: their wealth isn’t always worthy of envy, and is certainly not worth sacrificing one’s life to attain.”

“Atlas Shrugged? More like Atlas All I Really Wanted Was a Hug.”

The truth is that – barring those below the poverty level, everyone in America is rich. If you live in a warm house, sleep in a warm bed, have never gone to sleep hungry, have the time you need to study and rest, have a s---- cell phone and an out-of-date computer, you’re f------ rich. Once we cover our basic needs, the rest is vanity.

“Hardly anyone confesses happiness to anyone about anything; it’s just the nature of confession. That the super-rich don’t isn’t surprising.”

“In our church we have several families with money who have these gorgeous homes which they often open up for gatherings. While I appreciate their generosity I’m later discouraged about inviting the same groups over to our middle class home because…well I know our house just isn’t as nice as theirs.”

We will report those results as they are released.

Gerald Le Van
Chair, Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White & Max

April 2011

The questionnaire that 165 households answered for a Boston College study on the secret fears of the wealthy .

1. How would you describe your current overall goals regarding your wealth?  Use a scale from 0 to 10, with a 0 meaning completely in the phase of acquiring your wealth, and a 10 meaning completely in the phase of allocating your wealth.  (Circle only one number).
Acquisition                                                  Allocation
0    1    2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10


2. How financially secure do you feel?  Use a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning not at all financially secure and 10 meaning extremely financially secure.  Circle only one number.
Not at all secure                                          Extremely secure
0    1    2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10


3. How would you describe the ultimate goal or deepest aspiration for your life?
4. How does your wealth help accomplish this aspiration?
5. How does your wealth get in the way?
6. How would you describe your ultimate goal or deepest aspiration for your children (or heirs if no children)?
7. How does your wealth help accomplish this?
8. How does your wealth get in the way?
9. How would you describe your ultimate goal or deepest aspiration for the world or society?
10. How does your wealth help accomplish this?
11. How does your wealth get in the way? [Question 12 not included in the article]
13. Describe the "best" thing you have done with your wealth so far.
14. Describe the best thing you hope to do next with your wealth.
15. Describe the biggest mistake you have made with your wealth so far. 

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