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The Psychology of Wealth

There are five different personality types of American millionaires.

The continual raising of the bar of what constitutes wealth culture in the United States has made efforts to understand rich people a particularly challenging pursuit. Rather than just the traditional distinction of “old” vs. “new” money, today’s American rich comprise a complex sub-culture, a far richer, so to speak, group of people than ever existed or could exist in Fitzgerald’s time. The trope of old vs. new money is a tired one, certainly relevant a century or half-century ago but now a distinction that means little with the once defining characteristics of American wealth culture virtually completely eroded. “Old money” certainly exists, especially in older epicenters of wealth like New York and Boston but, four of five generations after their turn-of-the-century kin made their millions (when a million was really a million), most family wealth has been scattered (and squandered). Wealth culture is today much more fragmented and tribal than that of decades past but the mythology of Old Money is remarkably persistent, making many of our assumptions and beliefs about rich people flawed and misleading. As well, the dynamics of wealth are heavily obscured by our absurd obsession with “luxury,” that overused, underdelivered term that many mistakenly define as the sole interest of the rich. Net net, the great diversity within wealth culture makes understanding the rich challenging, to say the least, demanding new and different research techniques grounded in psychology and other social sciences.

To that end, I have spent considerable time venturing into the wilds of American wealth culture, documenting how rich people spend their time and money by using classic methods of cultural anthropology. In my research for J.P. Morgan and other marketers to the wealthy, I have proposed there are five different psychological profiles or personality types of rich Americans (defined by those having investable assets of at least $5 million), each kind comprising a sub-culture all its own. I call the first kind of millionaire Thrillionaires, wealthy people who subscribe to the idea that money exists principally to use. Thrillionaires have a profound desire to enjoy the things and experiences that wealth can buy, with their wealth serving as a confirmation of their success in life. They have a keen interest in both quality and quantity, and view first class not as special but as a 24/7 lifestyle. For them, wealth is the means to privacy, exclusivity, pleasure, and highly memorable experiences. Despite their often being the richest of the rich, I (subjectively, of course) argue that Thrillionaires represent the entry level to American wealth culture in terms of both their values and contentment, their priority of superficial, hedonistic pleasures (i.e., “luxury”) ultimately unfulfilling.

The second type of millionaire I identified in my anthropological study of the American rich are Coolionaires, who view aesthetics as the essence of life. Coolionaires have a deep desire to surround themselves with beautiful things and experiences, viewing their wealth as the opportunity to express their status as a person of refinement and sophistication. They share a proactive pursuit of sensory and stylistic environments of all kinds, with arts and artistry the cornerstone of their personal identity. For them, wealth is the means to consume beauty if they can’t actually create it and a way to dwell in and show off their personal aesthetics and taste.

The third kind of millionaire, Realionaires, stand as evidence that less can indeed be more. They have a natural inclination (vs. make a conscious effort) to stay under the radar of the trappings of wealth, seeing their affluence as an indicator of their status as a person of uncommon common sense. Realionaires share a willingness to spend big money on things that matter but also show a firm resolve to save on things that don’t, finding pride in being well-informed and a smart consumer. For them, wealth is simply a means to be oneself, having earned that privilege through their practicality and determination to get the biggest bang for their buck.

The fourth kind of today’s millionaire, Wellionaires, pursue “360-degree” wellness through their commitment to look good, feel healthy, and think positively. They use their wealth to convey to themselves and others that they are living lives in and of balance, finding an underlying spirituality in Eastern and New Age philosophies and therapies. For them, wealth is the means to keep one’s body and the Earth as natural and green as possible, perceiving a symbiotic relationship between themselves and the planet. They are highly evolved people looking for deep purpose and meaning in life.

The final type of millionaire, Willionaires, focus on the privilege and responsibility to try to make the world a better place. They have a determination to give back and, by doing so, make a mark and ultimately be remembered, viewing their wealth as a way to tell others and remind themselves that life should have purpose and meaning. Willionaires recognize their good fortune, literally and figuratively, to maintain traditions and strengthen the bonds of their family and community. For them, the concept of philanthropy is not charity but a way of life, with wealth the means to be a social entrepreneur in avenues they feel are important. Heavily invested in improving the lives of others (in more ways than one), Willionaires may serve as inspiration for we less-than-rich (Nilionaires?).

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