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?

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