Money can’t buy happiness

Most of what we think we know about people with a lot of money comes from television, movies and beach novels — and a lot of it is inaccurate, says Robert Kenny, EdD.

In an effort to remedy that, Kenny, a developmental psychologist and senior advisor at the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, is co-leading a research project on the aspirations, dilemmas and personal philosophies of people worth $25 million or more. Kenny and his colleagues surveyed approximately 165 households via an anonymous online survey and were surprised to find that while money eased many aspects of these people’s lives, it made other aspects more difficult.

The Monitor spoke to Kenny about his findings and about the significance of his research for those of us who don’t have a net worth of $25 million or more.

What prompted you to study wealthy families?

We wanted to try to understand the deeper motivations of people in high net worth households. They are rarely questioned about this, and instead are asked whether they would like a Mercedes or a Lexus. Do they prefer Tiffany’s or Cartier? Most surveys of high net worth households are marketing surveys to sell a product, so the questions that are asked are pretty narrow.

We decided to ask three major questions: First, we asked, “What is the greatest aspiration for your life?” As far as we can tell, no one has ever asked this population that question, yet there are assumptions made about this all the time. The second major question was, “What’s your greatest aspiration for your children?” Our third question was, “What’s your greatest aspiration for the world?” After each of the major questions we asked, “How does your money help you with your greatest aspiration?” and, “How does your money get in the way?”

What did you find?

People consistently said that their greatest aspiration in life was to be a good parent — not exactly the stereotype some might expect. When asked whether their money helps with that, they answered with all the obvious: good schools, travel, security, varied experiences. But when we asked how their money gets in the way, that was a payload. We received response after response on how money is not always helpful. They mentioned very specific concerns, such as the way their children would be treated by others and stereotyped as rich kids or trust fund babies, they wondered if their children would know if people really loved them or their money, whether they’d know if their achievements were because of their own skills, knowledge and talent or because they have a lot of money.

Some were concerned about motivation. They worried that if their children have enough money and don’t have to worry about covering the mortgage, what will motivate them? How will they lead meaningful lives? This is where the money might get in the way and make things confusing, not necessarily better. Very few said they hoped their children made a lot of money, and not many said they were going to give all the money to charity and let their kids fend for themselves. They were, however, really interested in helping their children figure out how they could live a meaningful life. Even though they did not have to “make a living,” they did need to make a life.

As for the respondents’ aspirations for the world, they focused, once again, on how to help the youth in the world live healthy, meaningful and impactful lives. Their answers were consistently youth-focused: They were concerned about being good parents, they were concerned about their children and they were concerned about the children of the world in general. We found that to be very interesting, and even surprising because it runs contrary to so many of the stereotypes about this population.

What had you expected to hear?

One could expect that you might hear things like, “I wanted to make a lot of money and become financially independent and be able to do whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it.” But very few said anything like that, although they appreciated the temporal freedom. It was so non-financially focused. I expected that when we asked them about their greatest aspiration for their children, we’d get a lot more people saying they wanted their children to be world leaders, but that’s not what they said at all. People said, “I’d like them to think about how to make their world a better place.” Not the world, their world — their community, their neighborhood, their family.

What might psychologists find most interesting about this work?

A net worth of $25 million or more brings temporal freedom, spatial freedom and sometimes psychological freedom, but it’s not always easy. Eventually temporal freedom — the freedom to do anything you want — raises dilemmas about what the best way to use all your time might be. There’s also spatial freedom: You get to build anything you want — a house, a business, a new nonprofit — and people often get lost or befuddled with all of their options. And you get choice. You can go to this restaurant or that one, this resort or that one, buy this car or that one. People can get overwhelmed by all the choices and possibilities, and the amount of freedom that they have.

Then the overwhelming question becomes: What is the best use of my time and resources? After a while one can actually become stymied and even dispirited. There are plenty of folks who are more than willing to make suggestions, but it takes a lot of individual work to develop the psychological freedom to make decisions. For most, that’s not a problem because time and money are limited, so the choices are limited. Being willing to try to understand the challenges of having an oversupply of time and money can be difficult for therapists.

The takeaway from all of this is that there seemed to be a trend that said you can’t buy your way out of the human condition. For example, one survey participant told me that he’d sold his business, made a lot of money off that and lived high for a while. He said, “You know, Bob, you can just buy so much stuff, and when you get to the point where you can just buy so much stuff, now what are you going to do?”

What’s the significance of this research for the vast majority of us who aren’t wealthy?

This research shows the rest of the world, who often think that if they just made one more bonus or sold one more item or got one more promotion, then their world and their family’s world would be so much better, that this isn’t necessarily true. There’s another whole level of concerns that parents are going to have about their kids. One of those concerns is this feeling of isolation. That’s actually a No. 1 concern for families with a high net worth — this sense of isolation — and the higher the wealth, the worse it gets. We know this is a very powerful feeling when it comes to one’s overall sense of well-being, and these people feel very isolated because they have what most of the world thinks they want. But just because you have money doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a bad day every once in a while. But what you often lose when you have all this money is the friendships that support you through the difficult times.

What have you learned through your years of working with people with a high net worth?

I think the toughest part about both working with this population and being in this population is that as soon as you say they have a net worth of $25 million, someone will start playing the violin. Like, “Oh, cry me a river, you have all this money and it’s causing problems?”

No one is saying, “Poor me, I have a lot of money.” In fact, most of them are saying, “I love having a lot of money. But don’t get me wrong, there are some downsides.”

These people don’t have to worry about whether they’ll have enough to make the mortgage payment, and they feel very fortunate. But it isn’t nirvana either. If their kids have access to a lot of money, and therefore a lot of drugs, that hurts just as much as if they don’t have any money and their kids are doing drugs. It doesn’t save you from any of that. It’s still a parent who has a child who is hurting.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

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