Addicted to Wealth, or Love?

How could a person resent making millions of dollars? Sam Polk suggests that some people develop wealth addiction. The more wealth they accumulate, the more money they need to achieve the same buzz. When they don’t get enough, they go into withdrawal and desire even greater wealth.

Signs of wealth addiction pop up often. Consider Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco International and recently released prison inmate. He’s the guy who bought a $6,000 shower curtain and a $15,000 umbrella stand. If there was ever a model of wealth addiction, it’s this guy.

Or is he? Society teaches us that money has power. My three year-old nephew, Graham, has no money sense. He doesn’t care if I give him a $1, $5, or $20 bill. Regardless of the value, he’ll wad it up and throw it across the room. Eventually he’ll learn about money, how to use it, and what it can give him.

So, how do some people get so hooked on money? They may not be addicted to the money itself, but rather to the way money gains them entry into the broader social system. If my annual salary is $30,000, I feel accepted and included if my peers earn about the same. We can afford to eat at the same restaurants, pursue the same hobbies, and treat our romantic partners to similar gifts. But what if my annual salary stays the same and my peers begin to earn $300,000 annually? Now how can I relate to them?

While I live paycheck to paycheck, they take international vacations, develop fine culinary tastes, and enjoy hobbies that demand a hefty entrance fee. I feel left out and alienated. Who can afford to fly to Tanzania and hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? How many times can you use the word oaky to describe a wine’s taste? Who knew a triathlon bicycle could cost $13,500? If I want to join my high-earning friends, I need to earn more money.

Social acceptance is the most valuable asset a person can own. We evolved a need for close and lasting relationships. This need to belong informs many of our decisions, even if we don’t realize it. And for good reason. For our ancestors, social exclusion was a death sentence. Even today, psychologists argue that loneliness harms health as much as smoking and obesity.

How might money’s symbolic power influence how people approach their relationships? Consider the situation students faced in a group of clever studies conducted by Xinyue Zhou, Kathleen Vohs, and Roy Baumeister. Students believed they would complete a three-person, virtual ball-tossing game. Unbeknownst to the students, the virtual players’ behavior was preprogrammed to accept or reject them. The socially accepted students received the ball an equal number of times. The socially rejected students received a couple of tosses and never got the ball again. They watched as the two other players tossed the ball back and forth, back and forth, until the experimenter stopped the three-minute game.

Imagine what those three grueling minutes were like. You enter a study expecting to toss a virtual ball to a pair of strangers. Now you find yourself reliving a scene from a school dance. You watch the cool kids enjoy the fun while you wait for someone to notice you’re there.

Next, the students reported how much they desired money. Would social rejection, even by computer-animated strangers, influence how much people wanted money? It did. When students felt rejected, they wanted more money.

What would that money give them? Relief from the pain of rejection. Simply handling money, rather than regular paper, was enough to shield the students from heartbreak. They even developed a thicker skin, enabling them to withstand more physical pain. What might have happened if those same students surrounded themselves with reminders of money all day? Would their confidence have grown and insecurities have weakened?      

These findings paint a different portrait of so-called wealth addiction. Yes, some people develop an addiction to money. CEOs, real estate moguls, and their super-rich counterparts might shower themselves with yachts, private jets, and lavish estates. These money reminders might originate from an unquenchable thirst for money. When one yacht isn’t enough, buy a few more or build a bigger one.

But wealth addiction may represent the exception rather than the rule. Many wealthy people only buy what they need. Warren Buffett prefers french fries over foie gras. Carlos Slim lives in the same house he purchased 40 years ago. Ingvar Kamprad flies economy class and drives an old Volvo.  

What drives most people to become wealthy? People want the social acceptance they think wealth will give them. Greater wealth means access to more activities and relationship opportunities. What few people realize is that it’s often lonely at the top. Socially deprived people desire money to fill the void—and use reminders of money to stave off the pain of isolation. For the rest of us, it pays to surround ourselves with people who give our lives richness, complexity, and meaning.