March 21, 2011— -- Would $25 million make you happy?
Not if you're a member of the ultra-rich.
In a survey titled "Joys and Dilemma of Wealth" by Boston College, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Calibre Wealth Management, the wealthiest set revealed they are an unhappy bunch -- worried about appearing ungrateful, rearing bratty children and failing to meet expectations.
The report, obtained by The Atlantic, gives a glimpse of the wealth and fulfillment level of 160 households, of which 120 had amassed fortunes of at least $25 million. The findings: Despite great wealth, many seem miserable.
One of the gems from the survey: "I feel extremely lucky, but it's hard to get other, non-wealthy people to believe it's not more significant than that … The novelty of money has worn off."
So is it better to live life without money? "Being very poor is very miserable," says Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University. "But it turns out money doesn't buy as much happiness as people think it would buy."
Bo Derek once said, "Whoever said money can't buy you happiness simply didn't know where go shopping" -- but that's not true, say happiness researchers. It's not the Screaming Eagle, one of the world's most expensive wines, or the Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 2 that bring the most joy. It's knowing how to do good with your money, say experts.
"One reason money might not provide as much happiness is because people might not spend it right," says Elizabeth Dunn, who conducts research on happiness. "We find that people get more happiness by spending money on others."
So what are problems of the big spenders?
"The truly wealthy know that appetites for material indulgence are rarely sated. No yacht is so super, nor any wine so expensive, that it can soothe the soul or guarantee one's children won't grow up to be creeps," writes Graema Wood in The Atlantic.
A respondent reported he wouldn't feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.
Survey respondents report feeling that they have lost the right to complain about anything, for fear of sounding — or being — ungrateful.
Those who are parents worry that their children will become trust-fund brats if their inheritances are too large — or will be forever resentful if those inheritances (or parts of them) are instead bequeathed to charity.
The respondents also confide that they feel their outside relationships have been altered by, and have in some cases become contingent on, their wealth. "Very few people know the level of my wealth, and if they did, in most cases I believe it would change our relationship," writes one respondent. Another says, "I start to wonder how many people we know would cut us off if they didn't think they could get something from us."
Some wealthy people stopped looking forward to the holidays "because they were always expected to give really good presents," said Robert Kenny, one of the organizers of the survey, when interviewed in The Atlantic. When you're a millionaire, Kenny says, expensive gifts merely meet expectations. "That was a pretty good present," the recipients might say. "But last year, you gave me a car."
"Wealth can be a barrier to connecting with other people," writes the spouse of a tech wizard who cashed in to the tune of $80 million. Rich people often feel they can't share the stresses in their lives, for fear someone will say, "Yeah, wouldn't I like to have your problems." It can get awkward when the check comes at a restaurant and there's hesitation over who will pay.
One wealthy survey respondent who worked in the nonprofit sector says she would feel insecure about her position if she resumed working. "If I decided to get a job in the field, I think I would have trouble being seen as a colleague and not a donor," she wrote.
Many express relief that their kids' education was assured, but are concerned that money might rob them of ambition. Having money "runs the danger of giving them a perverted view of the world," one respondent writes. Another worries, "Money could mess them up — give them a sense of entitlement, prevent them from developing a strong sense of empathy and compassion."
"I have grown up with a father who never wanted to give up control of his business but kept taunting me with the opportunity to step into his shoes." His wife adds, "It has been difficult to feel financially independent when [my] spouse's parents hold tight control over [our] children's inheritance."
"Nobody has the excuse of 'lack of money' for not being at peace and living in integrity," writes one survey respondent of his family, with a touch of bitterness. "If they choose to live otherwise, that's their business."
But don't feel too bad for the rich. It's likely they are happier than you are. "You are happier the wealthier you are, despite the problems you may have -- it's just not as strong as people think it would be," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California Riverside.
"The difference in money is huge but the difference in happiness is not," Lyubomirksy says. The uber-rich may control a huge chunk of America's wealth but they do not have a monopoly on happiness.
"You just don't get as much happiness per dollar," she says.