The Effect of Our Obsession With the Lifestyle of the Megawealthy

My friend Chris Yeh just did a sharply entertaining and dead-on post titled, "Money, Envy, and Why New Yorkers Are Crazy." In it, citing this sickening series of articles in New York Magazine on how New York’s super rich spend their money, he warns fair-minded entrepreneurs of the popular American hobby of "consumerist porn."

The feeling in your stomach after reading these kinds of insanely rich stories is probably similar to that of high school girls after they read People magazine — I never understood why my teenage girl friends looked at People, as surely only a self-loathing inferiority to the "norm" could emerge by umpteenth picture of Scarlett Johansson.

In our fascination with the lifestyles of the most wealthy (MTV Cribs, anyone?), Chris points out, it can be easy to confuse billionaire wealth with happiness. Time and time again research has found a correlation between money and happiness only to a point — I’ll pick a random number, and guess $75,000/yr income — with reported happiness levels being basically indistinguishable after that point (what the real cut-off is is up for debate).

I think it’s important, then, to not only avoid idolizing the lifestyles of the mega-wealthy (although, admittedly, I at times fantasize), but also to choose a physical environment that promotes better consumerist values. I know little about New York (I hope to spend meaningful time there at some point in my life), but based on this article and other anecdotal knowledge (Bonfire of the Vanities, for example, or recent college grads whose first job is on Wall Street), I have to guess that the high flying finance culture inculcates a set of unique values for young, smart professionals, and, if not questioned by the go-getter, are simply absorbed as right. And it’s 80 hour weeks, $500k salaries, mansions, and then private jets, several women, and endless gadgets.

The Bay Area, by contrast, lacks a similarly money-hungry culture. Chris ponders whether this is why the Bay Area has been successful as a high-tech hub: "The richest guy I know, a Google billionaire, still lives in the same rented apartment in Mountain View as when he was a grad student. And Priuses have largely replaced the Ferraris so common in the 1980s."

Here in Boulder, CO, my current locale, which according to one article is one of the top five wealthiest counties in America with a lot of "quiet wealth," living a glamorous lifestyle is second to skiing, hugging trees, and rioting in support of underage drinking — in other words, quality of life trumps all.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t live in New York (or London or Paris or Tokyo) without being sucked into a disheartening, make-money-and-spend-it-on-frivolous-bullshit scene, or that Silicon Valley or Boulder are immune from these traps, but it does mean that wherever we are living, there’s an elite, mega-wealthy culture, and before reading about its latest gossip in the local paper, we should think about what effects an obsession of their consumption has on our own values, life goals, and pursuit of happiness.

What do you think?

12 Responses to The Effect of Our Obsession With the Lifestyle of the Megawealthy

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    Let’s not forget that Warren Buffett, who surely deserves his accolades, still lives in Omaha, Nebraska. I’ll bet that helps him keep his perspective.

  2. Jeremy Welch says:

    Not only does Buffet still live in Omaha, he still lives in a house he bought decades ago for around three hundred grand.

    We all at times lose perspective and forget that money is really a tool.

  3. Toli G. says:

    Great posts by both you and Chris!

    As a New Yorker, let me adress New York. I often found myself budgeting my life around the things that surrounded me. During the first year I lived here, I blew ridiculous amounts of funds on the so-called “New York lifestyle,” because I bought into what other people were doing to externally validate themselves. I realized that without a strong identity, we are at the mercy of how other people respond to us by our buying habits or the kind of rent we pay. Seeing that spending so much money per day was the norm, I went ahead with it and thought that was the only reality. Of course, I was stupidly and childishly wrong, and was able to change my habits and lifestyle dramatically since then.

    Of course, one often overlooked aspect is that the density of the big cities creates so many more opportunities for consumption, so you need much more discipline. For example, the walk to the end of my block takes me through (in this order): a pizzeria, an Italian restaurant, a laundry and dry-cleaners, a Greek restaurant, a Mediterranean-spa, a dog-grooming place, a coffee shop, three high-end boutique stores, a hat shop, an after-hours lounge, two bars, and a 24-hour minimart! That’s a 30-second walk!

    We are also willing to fork over ridiculous amounts of money to live in what out-of-towners would consider squalor. However, I have a hard time imagining the Google billionaire living anywhere but in the “hot” spots of town, like Tribeca or the East Side or Soho (if Google were located here instead). That’s because living in the same rented apartment in Mountain View for him is surely functional. I’m not so sure that he wouldn’t want to upgrade if he lived in NYC, as functionality and comfort really do shift from neighborhood to neighborhood here.

    But what I got out of all this, after lessons painfully learned, is that quality of life is not equal to the amount of money spent. Yes, you may live in a city that offers the best of the best, but that hardly means the quality of your life is better than anybody else’s. You can’t buy your way to significance. For me, quality of life must be sustainable in the long run: buying $500 jeans and eating unhealthy frozen food for weeks after that is hardly a quality life. Quality of life cannot be predicated by the glossy magazines that this city spawned, but by the amount of happiness it provides.

    What’s more, if your standards of life are dictated by magazines and shows like Sex and the City, chances are most of us will not live up to that standard. And who cares?

    Both Ben’s and Chris’ posts are a reminder of how we don’t have to live up to other standards but our own, defining happiness and purpose in our own ways. And while advertising wants to make you feel paranoid that you’re not good enough and that you need to look like those models living this fleeting and inexplicable thing called a “New York lifestyle,” know that the real New York lifestyle is that one you create for yourself and the one that ultimately makes you happy.

  4. “a disheartening, make-money-and-spend-it-on-frivolous-bullshit scene”

    This is my favorite quote of the article, by far.

  5. krishna says:

    Great insights indeed. Chris has beautifully illustrated the “Law of diminishing marginal utility” practised by economists with his Pan Cake experiment.

    I think the direct correlation to happiness so derived ( if any ) does not feature in the sums spent by the megawealthy, but the pleasure they derive from raising the bar for “others” to be reckoned “in”.

    One thing which strikes me is if these people were intelligent enough to create so much wealth, how can they be so dumb in its deployment…?

    They can forgive themselves for splurging their first few millions beyond all cognizable norms of stupidity, but would they be comfortable feeling so vulnerable to the gravitational core of meaningless vanities…? ( Remember, we are talking about shrewd-hence-wealthy blokes here)

  6. This geographic lifestyle discrepancy can also be measured by the price of ABSOLUT. It’s not uncommon in NYC to see $20 bottles priced at $400.. and Sprite bottles in the hundreds.

  7. Jason says:

    Sheesh Ben… make me feel worse why don’t you ;-)

    I go to school in Coral Gables… about 30 minutes from the ever-glamarous South Beach. Been to the clubs. Had a drink or two (even though I’m under 21) and there are indeed designer jeans in my closet — though nowhere in the neighorhood of $500.00.

    Furthermore, I’m a Public Relations major, which is synomynous with “glamour” and “glitz” I can tell you that some of the conceptions are true… though it often involves a ton more work than people initially realize.

    What I’m getting it is… is it possible to “dabble” into the field of consumerism without becoming hopelessly sucked in? I don’t think having career ambitions that go hand in hand with celebrity/consumer culture are inherently bad. It’s society’s idealization that seems to harm people.

    Like it or not, people will always love beauty and glamour. Sex and the City was a hit because it gives people a glimpse into a life not many get to live, featured attractive leads and had wicked writing. So while I’m not spending every minute worrying about making $500,000k/yr (but you know, if someone wants to hook me up feel free) I won’t lie by saying a bit of greed/envy doesn’t hurt.

    Perhaps my ambitions are foolish, and if that’s the case life will quickly give me a corrective kick in the ass, but I made a promise to myself a long time ago I was going to rise above the maddening mediocrity that life in suburbia entailed — not to mention the horrifying weight gains after age 35.

    I’m half way there, and couldn’t be happier.

  8. Toli G. says:

    Published this weekend:

    link to spiked-online.com

    Talks a little bit about what we’ve all been discussing.

  9. Jason says:

    Also, anyone who wants a very entertaining piece of San Francisco’s own high-society (Dede Wilsey, The Gettys, etc) should look at W Magazine this month.

    While I’m sure many parts were exagerated (perhaps that’s why Danielle Steel decline to participate) it was very engrossing indeed.

    Remember, that’s W magazine, w/ Sienna Miller on the cover!

  10. Pierre Clause says:

    Regarding the pursuit of happiness, it might be time to buzz a little bit more around “how to measure it”, since “what gets measured gets done”…
    … In this respect the notion of GNH developed in Bhutan is worth reading about :
    link to en.wikipedia.org

  11. Chris Yeh says:

    Toli raises a fascinating point when he notes that if Google billionaires lived in New York, they’d probably abandon their Bronx walkups for posher digs immediately, since the difference in quality of life is so high.

    In contrast, in the Valley, a rented apartment in Mountain View delivers just as much utility as a mansion in Atherton (more, if all you want is a place to chill when you’re not coding).

    It seems like the irony here is that it’s much easier for a normal person to live like a billionaire in Silicon Valley…simply because the typical Valley lifestyle is already good enough for many billionaires. Not for Larry Ellison though….

    link to valleywag.com

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