Shucking Oysters: So, Who Wants to be a Billionaire?
According to the 2023 Bloomberg Billionaires Index, once again the usuals are among the top three. Musk saw his net worth jump $99 billion to $236 billion, crowning him as the world’s richest person. Zuckerberg ranked No. 2 with a $61.9 billion increase to $108 billion, and Jeff Bezos followed, adding $46.5 billion to his worth. And these boys are not alone.
No surprise that the US has the highest number of billionaires, 735 members with a combined net worth of $4.5 trillion. On a global scale, there are a staggering 2,640 billionaires worth over $9 trillion. To put that into perspective, in 1987, when Forbes produced the first list of the world’s billionaires, there were only 140 individuals.
Global Citizen estimated that for less than $10 billion, billionaires could fully fund the UN’s refugee programs. And for $35 billion annually, billionaires could close the global funding gap for education, ensuring that every child can go to school. But hey, there’s better stuff to spend money on.
Billionaires love to buy huge swaths of land. They also love remote islands for their lavish villas and estates. Many billionaires seem to think the world is doomed and spend vast sums of money buying properties in remote parts of the world to escape the looming apocalypse. They also like to build underground bunkers and stock them with tons of food, water, and really expensive toys to amuse themselves. Sometimes, they dispossess communities and harm the environment in the process. But oh, well. Billionaires also love to burn fossil fuels. Whether it’s through their private planes, mega yachts, or convoy of cars, they burn a lot to get from A to B. An analysis by researchers at Indiana University noted that billionaires have carbon footprints thousands of times greater than the average person.
For billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson, who have poured billions of dollars into personal space flight programs, the sight of a clear night sky is apparently not good enough either. Bezos spent a mere $5.5 billion for four minutes in suborbital space aboard his Blue Origin vessel.
But are they happy? At a certain level, the next million isn’t going to suddenly revolutionize their lifestyle. Another million dollars doesn’t make anything newly affordable. That’s when other motivations take over. Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor, says there are two central questions that people ask themselves when determining whether they’re satisfied: “Am I doing better than I was before?” and “Am I doing better than other people?” This applies to wealth, but it can also relate to attractiveness, height, and other things that people obsess about.
Norton asked more than 2,000 people who had a net worth of at least $1 million (including many who had more) how happy they were on a scale of one to 10, and then how much more money they would need to get to 10. “All the way up the income-wealth spectrum,” Norton said, “basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much” to be perfectly happy.
Jeffrey Winters, a professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of Oligarchy, said that in addition to social comparison, really rich people are often motivated to acquire more and more money by the sheer thrill that comes with multiplying one’s fortune. “For those of us who make wages and have expenditures that we are trying to meet—a mortgage, pay our health insurance, food, whatever happens to be our kid’s tuition—we link the making of money to our expenses,” he says. Meanwhile, many ultra-wealthy people “use their money to make money,” he says—an exciting, status-enhancing process. It’s different if the goal is to keep accumulating, in which case “there’s no number at which you have enough,” Winters says. He adds, “Every billionaire I’ve spoken to, and I’ve spoken to quite a number of them, is extremely excited by each additional increment of money they make.”
Brooke Harrington, a professor at the Copenhagen Business School wrote, “the sensation of ‘being well-off’ is not about fulfilling a childhood dream of buying a sailboat or something; feeling wealthy is about comparison with others in your reference group. So the question is not what individuals want to buy, but what they feel they must buy in order to keep up their status.”
Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo—who studied high-net-worth families for her book, From Entitlement to Intention: Raising Purpose-Driven Children—explains that “We think external things we buy will bring us happiness, but then we get them and we wonder ‘what’s next?” “That [next thing] has to be bigger and better” than what we had before and than what other people around us have, she adds.
So, you still want to be a billionaire? You’ll fly private jets, yes. You’ll eat gourmet cuisine all the time, you’ll have a massage therapist, a life coach and staff who will save you time. The problem is, the novelty will wear off. Even the private jet doesn’t cut it, because you’ll be comparing it unfavourably to other private planes you’ve flown on. And the mega yacht; not big enough. The hedonic treadmill. The reality, of course, is that plenty of research shows that most material possessions don’t make us happier—instead, it’s things like experiences and having more time to do things we love—and spend time with people we love—that drive happiness.
Sigmund Freud is said to have confided that if he had to choose between a rich patient and a poor patient, he’d choose the rich one any day. Why? Because the rich patient already knows that money is not the answer to his problems.