Our Secret Fears

David Lansky
David Lansky

An article – “Secret Fears of the Super Rich”, authored by Graeme Wood – recently appeared in the Atlantic Magazine (April, 2011).

The article is based on a study of wealthy families entitled “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth,”, that is being conducted by Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.  Although only preliminary results are available, 165 wealthy families responded to the Study’s survey, and were willing to discuss their thoughts and experiences.

I was surprised by the number of people who noticed the article, brought it to my attention, and saw it as a jumping off point for dialogue about the experience of growing up wealthy.  Among those who brought the article to my attention, some were “Super Rich”; others were members of privileged families but not in the “Super Rich” domain.

What these people had in common, I believe, was the desire to have an open discussion about a topic that is among the most personal secrets that we all share. In 15 years as a family therapist, I often found people more comfortable discussing intimate details of their sexual lives than the details of their financial statements.

The results of the survey, as summarized in The Atlantic article, reveal some of the reasons why our financial secrets are so emotionally complex:

  1. Wealthy people who discuss life’s dissatisfactions risk being subjected to “poor little rich kid” attitudes – if you are financially wealthy, you should have nothing to complain about.
  2. The rich are insecure about revealing their wealth to others, out of fear that relationships will subsequently be based more on money than on love. Feelings of isolation often result.
  3. Wealthy parents fear the impact that money will have on their children, so they are reluctant and confused about sharing this information. Will the children grow up with feelings of entitlement? Will they be unable or unwilling to find satisfying work? Or, will they successfully manage the responsibilities of wealth, and not be subject to the dissipation of family wealth captured in the saying “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”?

When wealthy people feel safe enough to discuss their secrets, as many did in the Boston College survey, we learn something most of us probably knew all along – that even great wealth does not bring a great life.

Those people who live a life of integrity, who cultivate deep personal relationships, who discover the pleasures of philanthropy – these people are the truly rich.

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