Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
Can money really change the way we think and behave? Research shows it can! Being rich offers all kinds of advantages in life, but a wealthy existence isn’t always as it seems. While the super-rich are the envy of many, money can’t buy happiness, and many challenges come with an affluent life.
Women in wealthy families often give up careers to become mothers, losing the identity and kudos that work provides. While many elite rich men (fathers) are absent from family life, instead being occupied with running large successful multinational corporations.
Children face unique pressures too – they are under duress to succeed and excel at school, all too often without the support of empathetic coaching and parenting.
More recent research shows that wealth can also cloud moral judgement; several studies report that being rich distorts empathy and compassion. Perhaps being rich isn’t such a coup after all?
Evidence suggests that wealthy people are disproportionately affected by addiction. So, life in the super-rich lane isn’t quite as it might seem from the outside. There are unique pressures.
This blog explores the psychology of the super wealthy and considers how being a billionaire impacts mental health.
The rich kids’ curse of ‘affluenza’
Back in 2013, rich teen Ethan Couch killed four people while driving under the influence of alcohol. During the manslaughter trial, a psychologist testified that Couch was affected by “affluenza,” a term which was explained as, “irresponsibility caused by family wealth”.1
The psychologist argued that having grown up in a super-rich family, Couch had acquired a deep sense of privilege and lived life with a complete lack of responsibility.
Ethan’s defense lawyers argued how he had grown up without any repercussions for his bad behavior. As a result, sentencing was surprisingly light – Instead of prison, Ethan Couch was ordered to spend time in rehab and given 10 years’ probation. Almost certainly, the sentencing would have been very different had this been a poor black kid from an impoverished neighborhood.
Throughout Ethan Couch’s trial, how he was parented was laid bare. His parents had a fractious and sometimes violent relationship that ended in divorce. A social worker’s report at the time of the divorce settlement concluded that Ethan had a co-dependent relationship with his mother and that he lacked a regular and consistent relationship with his father. The social worker also said, “both parents have ‘adultified’ Ethan and have allowed him to become overly involved in adult issues and decisions.”2
Research indicates that “affluence itself is a risk factor in adolescent development – not just having money, but how having money can distort values, parenting practices, and interpersonal relationships”3 – all of this being omnipresent in the life of Ethan Couch.
Substance and alcohol abuse among wealthy teens
Studies show that anxiety suffered by children in wealthy families is 20-30% higher than it is among the less affluent, and that affluent kids are more prone to substance and alcohol abuse.4
There is often a heavy price to pay for affluence. Alongside substance and alcohol abuse, there are disturbingly high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cheating, and stealing among wealthy teens.5
There are several possible reasons for this:
- High pressure for attainment/expectations to excel at school from parents, coaches, and peers
- More isolated from parents and family
- Rarely told ‘no’ / a lack of boundaries
- Easier access to substances and alcohol
- Pre-occupied with material wealth and belongings
- Peer pressure on the importance of attractiveness
- Pressure at school and within the family unit to show no weakness or vulnerability
- Inhibited development of friendships and intimacy
- Lives mapped out with activities, with little time for free play
This last point is an interesting one. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau wrote about this in her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, in which she compared the parenting styles of two black boys: one from an upper-middle-class family, and another whose family was in public assistance.6
She described the parenting style of wealthier parents as “Concerted Cultivation”. The purpose of childhood, according to this parenting style, she explains, is “to accrue skills that will lead to greater opportunity later on.” Conversely, parenting styles in working-class families revolve around the philosophy of ‘natural growth’. Lareau explains parents trust that providing love, food, and safety is enough. Meeting these basic human needs is often bypassed in wealthy families.
When Lareau followed up with the children she had studied, she found that the working-class boy had a wealth of practical skills that the wealthy adolescent lacked. She noted that in general middle-class parents tend to run the lives of their adult children in a way that prolongs adolescence.
The dysfunctional wealthy family
Of course, not all very wealthy families are dysfunctional, but many are. Parents are often absent from the home. They work long hours, travel, and attend glamorous social events. Parents who don’t work (often the mothers) have a diary full of beauty appointments, keeping fit, and attending a plethora of lunches and other social events with friends. Keeping up appearances in super-rich social circles is a full-time job! And looking good comes with the territory.
It is common in wealthy families for children to be tended by nannies or housekeepers. They are then sent to the world’s best boarding schools. The intention of course is to give a child the very best education, but there is, for most, a negative psychological impact to boarding school. Much has been written about how boarding schools produce psychologically damaged individuals.7 Life at a boarding school can be harrowing and constitutes a deep childhood trauma for many.
A paper by Suniya Luther, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Education, Columbia University Teachers College, on The Culture of Affluence, explores the nature of problems among the wealthy and their likely causes.8
She discovered problems in several domains, including substance use, anxiety, and depression – and two key sets of potential causes: pressures to achieve and isolation from parents. Both are intensified by boarding school.
The pursuit of further wealth
Once people have a lot of money, there is an obsession to stay wealthy. Ashley Whillans, a behavioral scientist from Harvard, calls this ‘the toxic money mindset’. She says that many already-rich people have a money-centric pursuit of further wealth and that this does little for happiness.9
Surveying the affluent, Whillans found that people were focused too much on making money, and not enough on having more time. But studies show that people who value time over money are happier, have healthier relationships, better social connections, and have greater job satisfaction.
The goalposts of wealth are always shifting. How many millions are enough? People in wealthy circles are always comparing themselves to others. Money is status and wealthy people are often entrenched in a culture of one-upmanship.
Once you have the trappings of a wealthy life, there is a hugely competitive drive to keep it and exceed the wealth of those around you. Fear of losing that wealth, power, and status plays heavily on trust and exposes doubt. It is a highly stressful situation that has an impact on mental health.
Moral entitlement, less empathy
Psychologists have labeled the personalities of billionaires as a ‘dark triad’ of Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.10 Studies show that extremely wealthy people are more likely to show behavior tendencies towards “self-promotion, emotional coldness, duplicity, and aggressiveness” and that they possess a greater likelihood of engaging in various unethical behaviors.
There is a marked lack of compassion in wealthy circles. Research shows that many of the rich and upper classes show a lack of compassion towards others and can even behave callously. Alleged instances of routine belittlement, intimidation and vandalism were par for the course at the exclusive Bullingdon Club at Oxford University in the UK during the 1980s.
Studies show that people of lower socioeconomic classes are better at reading facial expressions than people with money. Accurately reading facial expressions and attempting to understand how another person is feeling is a key part of empathy.
Research by psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner conducted at the University of California at Berkeley found that as people accumulate wealth and power, their empathetic feelings towards people begin to decline.11
The impact of wealth on mental health
Having access to money may guarantee the best healthcare but it doesn’t guarantee health per se. Living with wealth has many drawbacks, as has been highlighted in this discussion. The impact of wealth on mental health is a serious issue. Behind many wealthy lifestyles lies suffering, pain, childhood trauma, addiction, and depressive states.
Riches may provide for a privileged education and upbringing, but children in vastly wealthy families often grow up feeling isolated and unloved. It’s really no wonder that depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, and behavioral problems are commonplace.
Your personalized journey to freedom at CALDA
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We understand how traumatising childhood experiences, losses, separations, psychological or physical abuse, as well as chronic stress, can all be reasons for developing fears, depression, burnout, addictions, or eating disorders.
We work with the utmost discretion, dedicating ourselves to one client at a time. Our highly private clinic provides spacious and stylish residencies overlooking Lake Zurich. Your place and time to heal. Our plan is highly individualized, and dedicated to your specific needs.
For your personalized journey to freedom, contact us for a preliminary conversation.
- Miles, F. 12Feb2020. What happened to ‘affluenza’ teen Ethan Couch? Fox News
- Mooney, M.J. 27Apr2015. The worst parents ever. DMagazine.
- Rampage, C. 28Feb2008. The Challenge of Prosperity: Affluence and Psychological Distress Among Adolescents. Clinical Science Insights Vol.4.
- Miller, D. 11Jul2018. The Common Misconceptions About a Wealthy Upbringing. Psychology Today
- Luthar, S.S. 5Nov2013. The Problem With Rich Kids. Psychology Today.
- Kelleher, E. 13May2021. Why Wealthier Kids Are Time Poor And Depressed. Fatherly.
- Renton, A. 20July2014. The damage boarding schools do. The Guardian.
- Luthar SS. 17Aug2007. The culture of affluence: psychological costs of material wealth. Child Dev. 2003 Nov-Dec;74(6):1581-93
- Whillans, A. 19Oct2020. The toxic money mindset that even millionaires have—and how to break out of it. CNBC Make It.
- Eidelson, R. 25Oct2019. Psychology’s “Dark Triad” and the Billionaire Class. Psychology Today.
- Gregoire, C. 6Jan2014. How Money Changes The Way We Think And Behave. Huffington Post.