Heal The Rich! So you dreamed that wealth would bring you happiness? Think again. Newly minted millionaires now flock to shrinks, seeking a cure for the latest psychiatric malady: "Sudden-wealth syndrome."
(MONEY Magazine) – In America today there is a psychotherapist for every emotion. There are specialists for your anxiety attacks, your eating disorders, even your confusion about whether to have a sex change. And a growing number of shrinks now devote themselves to treating financial anguish. This thriving cottage industry includes psychologists who soothe the brittle egos of profligate heirs, psychiatrists who talk self-destructive traders in off ledges, all species of counselors for shopaholics, credit-card suckers and other deadbeat neurotics. But our Gilded Age has now produced something altogether weirder. A handful of so-called mind-and-money practitioners around the country are helping clients come peacefully to terms with the emotional and sociological fallout of getting rich.
Stephen Goldbart and Joan DiFuria, for instance, are therapists who three years ago founded the Money Meaning and Choices Institute (www.mmcinstitute.com) in Kentfield, Calif., just north of Silicon Valley, a region where, according to the New York Times, millionaires are now minted at a rate of 60 a day. MMC has several dozen clients, about half of whom exhibit symptoms of what Goldbart and DiFuria have taken to calling "sudden-wealth syndrome." According to Goldbart, the sufferer (if that's the word) is usually male, under 40 and often employed by a dotcom. His stock options, his mansion in Atherton and his Range Rover weigh heavily on his mind. He's depressed and feels his life is without meaning. Goldbart describes him as "a person who has recently experienced a sudden-wealth event that resulted in confusion and problems."
Which is on its face preposterous. And goes to show a number of things, not least that anything--including stupendous good fortune--can now be classified as a pseudomedical condition. It also suggests there is something seriously wrong with the state of the American character (or something) when the 12-step, dysfunctional family, "codependent no more" model of human psychology has penetrated so deeply into our culture that even people who are rolling in dough can think of themselves as victims. Mark it down as another entry for the time capsule; file alongside nitwit day-traders and Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? under "Year 2000 Market Bubble, cultural excesses of."
Once you're done sneering, you have to wonder if the new money shrinks aren't on to something. Underneath the psychobabble, what they are talking about is one of the last real taboos in America, namely class. The economy of the past several years has taken lots of people who grew up thinking of themselves as "middle class"--sneaker-and-jeans-wearing suburban middle class--and turned them, very quickly, into "the rich." And for some at least, the transition has produced what Jacob Needleman, a philosophy professor at San Francisco State University and author of Money and the Meaning of Life, calls "the despair of people who have gotten what they want."
(Perhaps it was, as usual, First Officer Spock who most nearly got it right when he mused, "Having, it appears, is not so satisfactory a thing as wanting," and then added, with a sardonic yet empathetic arch of those vaulted eyebrows, "It is not logical. But it is human.")
Stephen Goldbart explains the trauma of attaining sudden wealth in psychological terms: "When you're middle class and you're looking at the upper classes, you have a particular image of them. Some of that is, 'Well, it's great to do whatever you want.' The other part is that they're kind of assholes, they're self-involved, they don't care about anybody, they're out of touch. Waking up and feeling like you're one of them is part of the unconscious guilt here.
"Part of sudden-wealth syndrome," he adds, "is people saying, 'Wait a minute. I'm not that middle-class person who has to get up and go to work'--and that has vast ramifications. It means, 'I'm really not like my mother and father.'"
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Goldbart and DiFuria are pleasant, articulate, well-meaning people. But the mere existence of something like a Money Meaning and Choices Institute--even if it is, at the moment, only DiFuria, Goldbart and an administrator in a cramped professional suite in Marin County--should cause the needle on even the least sensitive bullshit detector to vibrate. Goldbart himself admits there has been some smirking from other therapists. "Of course, I don't know what's being said behind my back," he says.
Some people who are in a position to know doubt that sudden-wealth syndrome even exists. William Sahlman, a Harvard Business School professor of entrepreneurship, says he has yet to hear of "anything bad" happening to the numerous businesspeople he's seen get rich in the past decade. Likewise, Brian Herr, a director for product management with Ariba (a Silicon Valley company whose stock has rapidly enriched him by soaring twentyfold since last summer), says, "This definitely belongs in the wacky-idea file."
But others--even some who snort at the idea of visiting a shrink to discuss their financial lives--concede that making lots of money fast does produce some disorientation. One Silicon Valley exec, a woman who is not yet 30 and was an early hire at an incredibly successful Internet company, admits to a persistent unease over possessing a sum she describes as "more than you could ever spend in a lifetime." She confides: "I don't think I'm dumb, and I do think I've worked hard, but in no way has my effort been proportionately rewarded. Emotionally, that's something you have to come to terms with: the reality that wealth--or other fortune, material or otherwise--is so disproportionately distributed in this world."
That sense is not limited only to riders on the Internet gravy train. Eric Bellman, an artist, writer and retired teacher in Rochester, N.Y., never collected a big paycheck, but he saved every nickel and invested wisely. He recently tallied up his assets and found he was worth about $1.25 million--a clear case of virtue rewarded. But Bellman found it had been much easier to be open about being gay than about being rich. "I didn't think I deserved it," he says. For good measure, he also worried that friends would now resent him and that he'd have to start fending off people who wanted a piece of his fortune.
A lot of this angst, Bellman says, stems from his upbringing. His mother was a German immigrant and single parent who had scrubbed floors during the Depression to support her two children. Bellman says, "She never bought anything that wasn't on sale or a day old.... I remember buying my first pair of hundred-dollar shoes about 15 years ago and keeping that quiet. I could never tell her that I was financially successful."
A few months ago Bellman began consulting with Pamela York Klainer, a Rochester, N.Y. executive coach who has carved out a subspecialty as a money shrink. Like Goldbart and DiFuria, Klainer's technique is mainly talk therapy; she listens, you talk. But Klainer also uses an interesting additional device, asking clients to write a brief "money autobiography." The idea is to unearth what Klainer calls a "central money drama"--some event or series of events that have shaped the patient's unspoken attitudes to money. She gives clients a form that asks, "What's the first time you remember earning money? How free were you to decide what to do with it? Has money ever made a significant difference in a relationship? Have you ever seen money used to control another person or situation?" And the real killer: "Do you feel entitled to a lot of money? Why or why not?"
Bellman says he didn't spend much time filling out Klainer's questionnaire, but he had already agonized at length over those last two questions. And Klainer's primary advice made him uneasy: "She would say things like I ought to go out and spend a thousand dollars every once in a while. She tried scare tactics with me, like if you don't spend it, the government's going to get it. I was fairly horrified with her being directive like that."
Ultimately, though, Bellman began to change his habits. For years, he has taken an annual vacation in Turkey, usually traveling slowly and cheaply by bus. But on his last visit, he says, "I was in the south of the country, and I wanted to get back to Istanbul. So instead of taking a bus, with Pam's voice in the back of my head I went into a Turkish airline office and bought a plane ticket for $85. That was sort of a turning point." Since then he's splurged on such luxuries as a pair of $250 tickets to an AIDS fund raiser and a new Audi to replace the Mercury Tracer he had owned since 1987. Not that he's been able to erase his childhood and entirely rewire his personality. Bellman still enjoys shopping at the Volunteers of America thrift shop. And while he loves his new car, the purchase, he admits, "scared the shit out of me."
Bellman's basic problem was that while he had acquired upper-class money (okay, minor league upper-class money but a lot by any reasonable standard), he was still stuck with middle-class values: all that good stuff we try to teach our kids like thrift, industry and self-discipline. But he also harbored a secret suspicion shared by many other Americans: an inarticulate but powerful sense that money is inherently dirty.
Another of Klainer's clients--a woman we'll call Mary--has also been haunted by this intense ambivalence about money. She had built a small but successful Silicon Valley firm, which she sold last year to a behemoth for several million dollars. Sweetness itself, right? "It should have been nirvana, but it wasn't," says Mary. "I had a full-on freak-out about it." Like Bellman, she had been lugging around a lot of unexamined ideas about wealth from her childhood. ("Money always plays out over at least two generations," says Klainer.) Mary says her father "thought money was dirty, and my mother was a housewife who never knew how much was in their checking account."
Mary's fears that she would become a self-satisfied nouveau riche jerk and that her employees would start to hate her have turned out (she thinks) to be overblown. Still, she hasn't been able to completely embrace her new identity as a Siliconaire. Her guiltiest pleasure is an extremely expensive second house she and her husband now own. None of her employees have ever seen it, and she's happy to keep it that way. She'd rather, she says, not have them speculating about how much it cost.
Of course, if being rich really bothers her, she could always give her money away. Philanthropy is a time-tested salve for the guilt of the wealthy. Both Klainer and the folks at the Money Meaning and Choices Institute routinely recommend it to their clients as part of the "cure" for the sense of meaninglessness that often ensues after the first thrill of attaining sudden wealth.
MMC's Goldbart and DiFuria hope for an epochal outpouring of money and philanthropic energy as the Internet generation ages and begins to turn its attention away from stock options and toward leaving a better world for their children. Goldbart, a self-described ex-hippie, says: "The fire we're lighting under people is to do something. By awakening altruism in yourself, you're going to feel better.... It's right for people who have a whole lot to feel guilty. And that guilt ought to motivate them to do something."
Goldbart adds, "What we are attacking is a kind of money-greed culture." In its place, he preaches the virtues of "a more value-based way of looking at life.... Altruism and finding balance are good for people, whether they make $20,000 a year or $200 million a year."
"SPOILED RICH BRATS TOOLING DOWN THE HIGHWAY OF LIFE"
The current creation of wealth may be unprecedented, but anxiety about the perils of money is nothing new. Paul Schervish, a professor at Boston College, is almost alone in academia in having researched the sociology of American wealth. He's edited two books on the subject--Gospels of Wealth: How the Rich Portray Their Lives and Wealth in Western Thought. Schervish says Americans have always been ambivalent about wealth--seeking it furiously at the same time as we hold those who have it in moral contempt. (One of his favorite examples of that contradiction manifesting itself in pop culture is The Millionaire. The '50s TV hit revolved around an anonymous benefactor who presented a fat check each week to a startled recipient. Invariably, the cash proved to be more of a burden than a boon.) Schervish says the rich are alternately envied and resented to differing degrees, depending on the cultural mood of the moment.
The origins of all this ambivalence are ultimately religious. We're motivated simultaneously by the Calvinist work ethic, which bids us to be frugal and prudent, as well as by the Bible's admonitions about the love of money being the root of all evil. Most famously, Christ warned a righteous young merchant to "sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven," adding, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." (My personal favorite along these lines is a saying attributed to Bob Marley: "Remember that there is only one proper place to spit in a rich man's house: in his face.")
Being the object of such venom--even when it is unspoken--can be tough, says Ruth Ann Harnisch, a former TV reporter and newspaper columnist in Nashville who became, in her words, "very, very rich" when she married New York City money manager William Harnisch. "I know the difference in how the world treats you," she says.
Indeed, when money is involved, even a common aggravation like getting a speeding ticket can be transformed into a small skirmish in the never-ending war between the haves and have-nots. Harnisch writes in an e-mail message: "Today, coming back from (the elite, expensive) Canyon Ranch [spa] in the Berkshires, my husband saw the flashing red light behind him. He pulled the BMW 740iL over, and I saw him sitting there in his (obviously expensive) leisurewear with our (obviously expensive) luggage, with me sitting there in my (obviously expensive) clothes sliding my (bigger-than-the-trooper's-wife's) diamond rings around so they didn't flash in his face. My husband, the poor-boy-from-Queens-whose-N.Y.C.-cop-father-died-when-Bill-was-a- kid, said later, 'I was hoping the guy would give me a break.' And I thought, ARE YOU NUTS? We are still Ruthie from South Buffalo and Billy from Queens in our minds, but that state trooper saw spoiled rich brats tooling down the highway of life. A break? A BREAK? LIFE gave you a break, pal--why should a COP give you one?"
Harnisch says she's even noticed a hint of resentment--an excessive formality in the presence of the "rich lady"--when dealing with some of the numerous charities to which she doles out big checks. Of course, that doesn't mean that she has any plans to stop making donations. Or that she intends to shed her diamonds or give away the BMW. Money may not buy you happiness or a place in heaven, but it does after all have its benefits. Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion, knew the disadvantages of both wealth and poverty. And he, for one, preferred to endure the heartaches of the rich to those of the poor. "I don't like money very much," he once remarked, "but it calms my nerves."