Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Greed: The Ultimate Addiction

What’s the unquenchable thirst for wealth all about?

What connects the various addictions is that enough is never enough—not for long anyway. As addicts progress (or rather, regress) into their addiction, to derive sufficient gratification they must constantly seek more and more of their drug of choice. For “more” is the keyword of addiction. It doesn’t matter whether they’re addicted to a substance, relationship, or activity—the “ante” for getting enough of the object of their craving must continually be raised.

But of all the things one might be addicted to, nothing tops the greed-laden pursuit of wealth in its audacity, manipulativeness, and gross insensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. Not to mention its extreme, short-sighted, irresponsible covetousness. Ask a multi-millionaire or billionaire so afflicted (if you can find one willing to talk to you!), and you’ll discover that their “mega-fortune quest” really has no end point. They won’t be able to name the definitive “millionth” or “billionth” that, finally, will do it for them. They can’t because the means by which they reap their riches has itself become the end.

Chasing every financial opportunity—and, it cannot be overemphasized, to the detriment of virtually everything else in their life—has become their be-all and end-all. For that, frankly, is where the dopamine is: the master molecule of pleasure and motivation. And the “end” for them is simply the high (or dopamine release) they receive each time they do a deal, turn a profit, or make a “killing.” And just like other addicts, over time (because of the related phenomena of tolerance and dependency) they’ll need to make bigger and bigger “killings” to get the ego gratification they require in order to feel good about themselves.

In general, their “money high” has to do not just with feelings of fiscal elation but with a kind of self-inoculation. What perpetual wealth production inoculates them against are underlying, and barely recognized, feelings of distress—such as depression, anxiety, guilt or shame—which stem from a belief that deep, deep down they may not be good enough at all. So greater and greater financial success is required to help them sustain their cherished illusion that they really are superior—in economic terms, vastly superior—to others: a most convenient narcissistic “fix” for whatever subterranean doubts they may yet harbor about themselves.

On an ethical level, the worst thing about their pursuits is that their mercenary, ego-driven achievements frequently do considerable damage to others and their prospects. Not always but typically those who might be called “greed addicts” aren’t in the professions or creative Arts, but in business: entrepreneurs, investors, speculators, lenders, CEOs. And most often their successes contribute little or nothing to society. Rather, their undertakings are cunningly contrived to transfer money out of the pockets of others and into their own. Exceedingly competitive and aggressive, they’ll take ruthless advantage of every opportunity to turn a profit—and not shy away from turning against others in the process.

To them luxuries (“my Ferrari...my yacht...my estate...my penthouse...”) are necessities. They all make them look good—and appearances are one of their foremost considerations. For material acquisitions can wondrously mask (both from others and from themselves) woeful deficits in their core self-image.

Still, it should be stressed that whatever appetite they may have for “things,” their interminable lust for making money really doesn’t have that much to do with tangible purchases. Contrasted with spending addicts (a compulsion that drives such over-the-top consumers—or shopaholics—into unmanageable debt), greed or wealth addicts are hardly focused on depleting or disbursing their fortune but on acquiring and maintaining it. Unconsciously linking their fundamental human value to their financial worth, what drives their behavior is accumulating as much wealth as possible—and then using it to acquire still more wealth. (And this is why they’re apt to become suicidal should they experience a severe economic reversal. For it feels as though they’ve been stripped of all personal value).

It’s been said that “you never get enough of what you don’t really want.” With people addicted to pursuing wealth, their overwhelming, insatiable passion isn’t about getting rich—but richer...and still richer. And it’s unquestionable that this is not a virtuous cycle but a markedly vicious one. Ultimately, their heart’s desire—tragically unknown to them—isn’t for wealth at all, but for love, emotional intimacy, unconditional acceptance (and self-acceptance), and “rich,” satisfying relationships. Regardless of how obscenely wealthy they may become, these are all things that, alas, cannot be purchased with money.

The final debacle of their pursuit isn’t simply that their monetary accomplishments can’t ever bring them the lasting happiness and peace of mind they secretly crave. It’s that their futile quest generally causes all sorts of misfortune to others...As well as to our environment (which they blithely ignore), and to our nation—whose misregulated capitalistic system regrettably supports their ceaseless avaricious ventures.

Note 1: Here’s a link to an earlier post of mine in PT that complements this one: “The Pursuit of Happiness—or the Quest for Wealth.”

Note 2: If you think this piece might be appreciated by others, please consider sending them the link. Additionally, if you'd like to check out some of my other writings for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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