First world problems, wealth and happiness

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First world problems, wealth and happiness.

The term "first world problem" is used to describe the complaints of privileged people in wealthy countries that would be considered trivial by those living in third world nations. It was a term that sprang to mind when I watched a television series where very wealthy individuals contemplated ridiculous and over the top ways of spending their money.

I found it similarly hard to sympathise with the frustrations expressed by billionaire Markus Persson who sold his online gaming company Minecraft to Microsoft for £1.2 billion ($2.6 billion). He told his Twitter followers that he was "hanging out in Ibiza with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I've never felt more isolated". He then said "the problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance".

While we may not exactly feel sorry for wealthy people, it is interesting to learn that wealth does bring a unique set of problems. Over the last decade, a number of American financial institutions have developed business units specifically designed to help high net worth customers navigate the difficult waters of extreme wealth.

US bank Wells Fargo established a Family Dynamics and Education department, employing clinical psychologists as consultants to serve moneyed individuals. This department dealt with 120 families in 2015, a 40 percent increase over the previous year.

A new and growing profession provides "wealth therapy" services where counsellors listen and offer solutions to problems that wealthy people can't discuss with friends and family (who could never understand).

The challenges the rich face are not just trivial ones like having nobody to play with because everyone's at work. According to an Arizona State University professor, affluent youth have rates of depression and anxiety more than twice as high as the national average. Nearly 30 percent of young adults from well-off families reported heavy drinking 12 or more times in the past year, compared to just 8 percent of those from poorer families. Wealth has been linked with elevated levels of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic issues and self-mutilation. Millionaires and billionaires have the same issues and anxieties as the rest of us - money just magnifies them.

A Boston College paper titled "Secret Fears of the Super-Rich" listed the top fears of the very affluent as:

  1. Money. Having experienced money, one needs increasing amounts to feel financially secure.
  2. Isolation. Rich people can never share their stresses or complaints because they will sound ungrateful and nobody will empathise.
  3. Parenting. Parents worry their children will become brats if they inherit too much or resentful if it's too little.
  4. Friendship. "You can never know for sure whether friends like you or your money".
  5. Dissatisfaction. The truly wealthy know that one's appetite for indulgence is rarely sated. "No yacht is so super nor any wine so expensive that it can soothe the soul".
  6. Entitlement. Parents worry that money will rob their children of ambition, leaving them nothing to strive for and no sense of empathy or compassion.
  7. Expectation. There is often an assumption that a large amount of money is an infinite amount of money, so you will always be criticised for not spending enough to solve a problem.

We shouldn't feel too bad for the rich  — it's likely that they are happier than we are. But contrary to popular belief, there is not a direct relationship between happiness and wealth.

Happiness doesn't automatically increase with your bank balance.


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