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If I Were a Rich Man

What are the challenges of having a lot of money?

Money — and having more of it — is one of the strongest impulses gripping most of us throughout most of our lives. And while many of us believe money can't buy happiness, some research1 suggests that money can indeed buy happier lives, but not necessarily more meaningful lives. So that when it comes to ease of having someone else mow your lawn or clean your house, it's likely you will be happy having the money to outsource those tasks. But that money and that ease does not necessarily translate into a more meaningful life. I want to focus a little more specifically with how these questions might apply to men, because in general most men measure their sense of inner worth through a measure of outer accomplishment, and one of the best measures of outer accomplishment is level of income.

"If I were a rich man....."

So opens the famous song by Tevye, the simple milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof."

"I wouldn't have to work hard.....All day long I'd biddle-biddle-bum, if I were a wealthy man."

There is a fantasy I think many of us share, that being wealthy allows for leisure, and that given enough leisure we would undoubtedly be happy (this may also apply to the fantasy of retirement). Certainly those of us leading busy lives want more leisure, but for a man in particular, where being productive in the outer world is so tied to one's sense of internal identity, not having to work for a living creates a challenge to developing a stable identity.

A study which surveyed the problems of the super-wealthy2 describes how:

"A life of worklessness, however financially comfortable, can easily become one of aimlessness, of estrangement from the world. The fact that most people imagine it would be paradise to never have to work does not make the experience any more pleasant in practice. Career advancement is the standard yardstick by which most people measure success, and without that yardstick, it’s not easy to assess whether one’s time is well spent."

I think most of us know at least someone who was out of work, either by choice or circumstance, who in addition to whatever financial issues were involved would speak of the need for structure and purpose in life. Again, and I realize this is a generalization, I have never personally met a man who felt completely good about himself without having felt successful in some aspect of a career. How many times is a man asked at a party or social gathering, when meeting someone for the first time: “What do you do for a living?”

I'd see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man's wife
With a proper double-chin.
Supervising meals to her heart's delight.
I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock.
Oy, what a happy mood she's in.
Screaming at the servants, day and night.

Of course this song is based in the reality of poor Eastern European Jews, so the fantasy of what Tevye and Golde would do with all that money is very different than what ours might be. But with the privilege of all that wealth come complications. Let’s say a man is very wealthy and looking for a spouse. How easy will it be for him to know if a woman is attracted to him because of who he is or how much money he has? This same article on the super rich writes about how:

“Wealthy people of both genders are wary of gold diggers—Does he love me or my money?—but at the same time fear that this wariness might make them mistrustful of genuine affection.”

I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks
For the town to see and hear.
Squawking just as noisily as they can.

With each loud "cheep" "squawk" "honk" "quack"
Would land like a trumpet on the ear,
As if to say "Here lives a wealthy man."

Tevye is here describing the version of conspicuous consumption that would exist in his village. Today it would look quite different, but the principle is the same: admire me because of what material goods I have. I think most of us, if we are honest, can identify one time when we bought something based, at least in part, on how we imagine it will make us look to others. Wealth gives us the ability to extend this dubious practice in many new ways, living our lives in terms of an outer fantasy for how we think we need to appear more than the inner truth of who we are. We know this doesn’t work, but the temptation is there to do it just the same, and we often think “If I only had enough money to buy….”

As the article states:

"If anything, the rich stare into the abyss a bit more starkly than the rest of us. We can always indulge in the thought that a little more money would make our lives happier—and in many cases it’s true. But the truly wealthy know that appetites for material indulgence are rarely sated. No yacht is so super, nor any wine so expensive, that it can soothe the soul or guarantee one’s children won’t grow up to be creeps."

The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
"If you please, Reb Tevye..."
"Pardon me, Reb Tevye..."
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!

And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you're rich, they think you really know!

I actually think this is one of the most pernicious problems of money—being cushioned from the truth of the outside world. There are a number of wrinkles to this issue. First, I think we do have an unconscious belief that someone who has a lot of money must know more about things than us mere mortals. While this can certainly be true in some narrow circumstances, such as knowing more about the stock market or a business, why do we ask them questions outside their area of expertise? Another wrinkle is the automatic deference shown to someone who has great wealth. How could this not go to one’s head? If I stepped off a private jet at some vacation spot, how could I not feel special, “better than” the person who opened the door for me? I think this deference based on money distorts an important feedback mechanism we all need to get, where people or the world give us course corrections for our behavior or ideas.

Would I like to win the lottery? Of course, though as is often pointed out, to win the lottery I would need to start playing it. Do I have fantasies of what I would do with the money? You betcha. But I think the message we should get from the lives of the super-rich is that money cannot be a short cut to a life well lived. The person we are inside still waits for us to help bring it into the outer world.


1 Baumeister,R., Vohs, K., Aaker, J., & Garbinsky, E. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8 (6), 505-516.

2 Wood, G. (2011). Secret Fears of the Super Rich. The Atlantic Monthly. April, 2011.