WHY WE ENJOY THE EXCRUCIATING MISERIES OF THE SUPER-RICH

The popularity of stories about unhappy rich people says more about our need to view them that way than it does about how they experience their lives

Opinion: Succession is returning to Aotearoa’s television screens. It joins other portrayals of the emotional traumas that come from having far, far too much money.

We learn from the Roy children’s daddy issues that money can’t buy affection from media mogul Logan. We get a similar message from the TV series White Lotus. Luxury vacations in Hawaii and Sicily mainly bring melancholy.

These fictional depictions align with the recently published Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire by James Stewart and Rachel Abrams, exploring the misdeeds and miseries of those running CBS and Viacom. It starts with an account of the final years of founder Sumner Redstone who finds that his money buys sexual services and proclamations of love aplenty, but those offering them actually find him repellent. Redstone spends much of his time weeping.

The popularity of stories about the miseries of the 0.01 percent says more about our need, in a world of rising wealth inequality, to view them that way than it does about how they experience their lives.

This is apparent in a recently published study on the effects of wealth on happiness. The study by Matthew Killingsworth, Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Mellers reversed an influential finding that emotional wellbeing increased with more money but then plateaued somewhere between an income of USD$60,000 to $90,000. According to this earlier and widely cited wisdom, money buys happiness but only up to a certain point.

READ MORE:

The risk of welcoming stealth billionaires

Two wealthy women and a few hundred million, give or take 

Killingsworth said about their 2023 reversal – “In the simplest terms, this suggests that for most people larger incomes are associated with greater happiness.” Among the people in the study there was an “unhappy minority” – about 20 percent “whose unhappiness diminishes with rising income up to a threshold, then shows no further progress”.

Elon Musk is unlikely to fill in a survey on his subjective wellbeing or to sign up for therapy with Clay Cockrell. We may hope the mess Musk seems to have made of buying Twitter has dented his happiness just a bit. Those targeted by mass layoffs at Twitter have almost certainly suffered declines in their subjective wellbeing.

We’d rather hear about this unhappy minority. Writing in the Guardian, Clay Cockrell, a therapist who specialises in ultra-high net worth individuals, reports that “they are just as miserable as depicted in Succession”. According to Cockrell “it can be very difficult to watch these individuals struggle with the toxicity of excess, isolation and deep mistrust”. This may be true for his clients, but they are a biased sample of the super-rich.

Those who see a therapist are most likely selected from the unhappy minority than from the almost 80 percent who get happier with more money. Generalising about the happiness of any group based solely on those seeking therapy would likely lead to the conclusion that misery is universal. Cockrell’s patients may be like the very wealthy but deeply sad Tanya McQuoid, a White Lotus character memorably played by Jennifer Coolidge. She’s clearly a member of the unhappy minority who won’t be cheered by any amount of money.

Rising inequality and our need for stories about the wretched rich

As the gap between haves and have-nots widens, we don’t want to think about the possibility that the happiness of the super-rich could be rising in lockstep with their bank balances. The 2023 study lacked “substantial data” for individuals earning in excess of USD$500,000 so we can’t say how much happier you get if you boost your income beyond that point.

Elon Musk is unlikely to fill in a survey on his subjective wellbeing or to sign up for therapy with Clay Cockrell. We may hope the mess Musk seems to have made of buying Twitter has dented his happiness just a bit. Those targeted by mass layoffs at Twitter have almost certainly suffered declines in their subjective wellbeing.

Suppose the super-rich could be enjoying unprecedented levels of happiness to go with their wealth. Perhaps this explains why they so vigorously contest requests to contribute more to the public purse. Could this be an additional prompt to enact policies that respond to the inequality that gives such pleasurable lives to the fortunate few? The rich don’t even have the decency to feel miserable as they hang out in luxury resorts and explore Taormina’s Greco-Roman theatre.

There may be good news from the 2023 study for members of the super-rich who find themselves enduring the miseries depicted in Succession. You may be failing to live up to the expectations of a father whose favoured response to your inquiries is “F*** off!”. You may lack the agency enjoyed by today’s tech billionaire class. But you may find a lot of happiness if rather than trying to emulate dad, you just get busy spending his money.

2023-03-24T17:13:48Z dg43tfdfdgfd