The Perils of Fame and Fortune

Why do so many pop stars and aristrocrats have psychological problems?

Posted Oct 08, 2012

If you want to steer clear of substance abuse and live a sober life, one of the worst things you can do is become a pop musician. Almost all of the major pop musicians of the last 40 years had drug or alcohol problems at some stage, some more serious than others. Elvis, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and thousands of others not quite so famous – some were lucky enough to recover from substance abuse, but many died as a consequence. It’s actually quite rare to find a pop musician – especially from the 70s or 80s – who didn’t have difficulties with cocaine, heroin, alcohol or another drug at some point.                                                                                                                                                    

There are a few possible reasons for this. Rock stars are used to having their egos continually affirmed by their fans, to thinking of themselves as special and important, and so an ego-boosting drug like cocaine appeals to them, to sustain that sense of importance. Or from a different point of view, when ego-affirmation comes to an end, they may feel a sense of lack and turn to drugs to try to fill it.

Pop musicians are also used to high level of excitement when they play concerts, and the shift from this to everyday life may be too abrupt, and also leave a feeling of emptiness. They may take drugs to try to sustain that level of excitement and stimulation. And also, of course, money may be a factor: rock stars usually have massive amounts of ready cash to buy drugs with. Or finally, for more introverted and sensitive people, a depressant like heroin might help to insulate them from the isolation and constant pressure of fame.

However, I believe that the main reason why so many pop musicians are so prone to drug problems is very simple: because of the unstructured, inactive lives they lead, with a lot of travelling, hanging round and empty time. Pop stars have much more leisure time than most of us. They don’t have to get up to go to work in the mornings, and put in 8 hours at the office. This might seem like a blessing, and in some ways it is, but unless you’re a self-reliant and self-motivated person, a large amount of free time and a lack of structure can be disastrous. How does it feel to wake up every morning with no necessity to do anything and no structured activity in front of you? What do you do for those months between tours or recording commitments, apart from hanging around and getting bored?

Psychological Discord

Human beings need structure and activity to keep our attention focussed externally. There seems to be a fundamental discord and restlessness inside our minds; when we have too much free time, our attention turns inward and we’re forced to confront this discord, which creates feelings of boredom, discontent, anxiety and even depression. And many pop musicians use drugs and drink as a way of escaping from these feelings. (The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this discord as 'psychic entropy', and notes that one of the reasons why 'flow' states are so beneficial is because they allow us to transcend it.) 

Of course, pop stars aren’t the only people to suffer from these problems. Many film stars have had problems with substance abuse too, and there are many cases of extremely rich people with similar difficulties. This seems to be a particular problem for people who are born into money. In the UK, there is a high incidence of drug problems amongst the aristocracy, for instance. There have been many cases of ‘privileged’ young aristocrats being arrested for heroin or cocaine possession, checking themselves into clinics for treatment and/or dying due to drug problems. One well known example was the Marquis of Bristol, who died of multiple organ failure in 1999. He had a fortune of £30 million, which he used to try to keep his unhappiness at bay. He held lavish parties, owned a fleet of classic cars, a private Helicopter, several houses and apartments around the world. But there was always a deep dissatisfaction inside him which he eventually turned to drugs to try to escape from. His drug addiction killed him at the age of 44, but in reality, as one journalist wrote shortly after his death, he ‘died of boredom.’

Many unemployed people face similar problems. Research shows that unemployed people are much more unhappy than the employed, with a higher level of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental problems. This isn’t just because of a lack of activity and structure, of course – other factors include the lower income, low social status and fewer social contacts – but it’s certainly an important factor.

Healing our Minds

The problem is that our own ‘mind-space’ – the place we enter when our attention isn’t focused externally – is often a very uncomfortable place. Our own ‘psyche’, the consciousness we feel ourselves to be inside our heads, is so restless and uncomfortable that it’s difficult for us to spend any time there.

This might sound pessimistic, but one of the important points is that it is possible for us heal this psychological discord . It is possible for us to learn to rest comfortably within our own mental space. And how to do that will be the topic of future blogs.

Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as 'an important contribution to the shift in consciousness happening on our planet.'

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