Return of “Affluenza”

When my first book How Much is Enough? came out in 2002, we were in the throes of something called “affluenza”, a wave of concern for the uber-wealthy and how their angst gets short shrift from those less financially secure — including most therapists. Dealing with affluent angst became a great market niche for financial planners as advisors for the “whole person” — aka unqualified pseudo-therapists — wealth coaches, and members of the mental health profession who found a profitable new niche. My book was somewhat directed toward this market, although it found a more robust and somewhat surprising home in Protestant stewardship circles — a decidedly less cushy but a deeply committed and thoughtful audience.

In the spirit of the old adage “there’s nothing new under the sun”, affluenza is making the rounds again.

I think I was too blunt for most members of the affluenza market. I recall working with a young woman whose family name is on a major product that you would recognize to this day. She bemoaned her wealth as the worst thing that had ever happened to her. I responded, not meaning to be flippant, that she could always give it all away. She looked at me as if I were insane.

I’m not indifferent to affluent angst, which mainly takes two forms. People of inherited wealth — who don’t have to work and mostly choose not to — are deprived of the chance to test their abilities in a setting where ability counts more in day to day performance than one’s investment account. They often have a pretty fragile sense of a competent self. People of earned wealth have a different problem: they tend not to be sure whether people really like them, or are sycophants looking to ride a gravy train.

Both problems are navigable, but you have to take the risk to be honest and vulnerable in order to do so. The barriers to growing as a human being are just as high for rich people as they are for the poor, maybe even higher because of the way rich people can be cosseted from reality.

Affluenza might be back, but I have no desire to return to advising those who suffer from it. I think my time in Panama makes it hard to empathize with people who can use wealth as a buffer against deeply vulnerable human relationships.

That said, and per the article, listening to rich people whose angst is connected to their money is profitable — worth $500 an hour at least. With articles like this coming online again, I have no doubt there will be a new surge in wealth coaches, wealth therapists and wealthy family advisors. Have at it, I say.

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