Yes, even the rich have worries

The reality is that, in times of booming growth or anemic progress, the well-off can feel unease, guilt and even distress

I once heard that half of all lottery winners consider suicide. I am not sure if that is true, or if it applies equally to Pick 4 winners and to Mega Millions winners. I do know that wealth — sudden, inherited or earned — is a source of stress as much as it is a source of joy.

In the current climate, it isn’t too popular to spend much time consumed with the needs or problems of the well-off. The tone in many circles is divisive and dismissive, and perhaps with good reason. The fortunes of the well-off have suffered considerably less in this economy than those middle and lower incomes. Even so, there is a reality that even in times of booming growth, or anemic progress, those who have can feel unease, guilt and even distress.

What to do in the face of these conflicting experiences? Supports are available, but permission to access them may not be.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the growing use of psychologists for high net worth clients of investment houses. Brokers were soliciting the services of professionals to assist with decision-making, relationship stress and anxiety of their investors. And while it might be easy to think of this as prurient narcissism on the part of the wealthy investor, research has shown that the dominant worries of the well-off are about the same as those with few resources.

When it comes to what keeps wealthy individuals up at night, it isn’t the status of their investments or the number on a balance sheet. Rather it is relationships — in particular their role as parents — that most consumes their time.

While the ruminations may not focus on how college tuition will get paid or whether orthodonture can be put off a year, the core concerns are the same. What is the right balance of indulgence and limit-setting? How can I convey the importance of hard work and sacrifice in the face of a comfortable life? How do I signal a sense of pride in accomplishment without pushing too hard for performance?

Confusion and concern

For those of us who work with wealthy clients, we recognize the precarious relationship with privilege that is experienced by the adult, and the even more challenging way this can be experienced within the family system. Just as families of divorce can often experience compensating for missed time with more permissive visits, wealthy clients can sometimes face feeling torn between permitting an expense to compensate for time away from family.

Finding the balance between these two extremes can feel impossible, and more than a few clients will admit to not being consistent in their approach to resolving this conflict.

You don’t have to be wealthy to recognize yourself here. In fact, research has shown that individuals whose lifestyle is more privileged than their own upbringing will also experience this tension. Any time our frame of reference (work hard to get ahead, give back, don’t settle) is different than our present reality (take time, be comfortable, say yes), we are likely to feel conflicted about what course to chart. This is true in parenting and in our professional development. But we don’t have to stay confused and make inconsistent choices simply because of uncertainty.

One way wealthy families can successfully navigate their families through the opportunities and challenges of their position is to lead by values. Conscious awareness of the core values, of how you want yourself or your family to be remembered at day’s end, can direct even everyday decisions in a manner that is consistent and genuine.

Not sure whether a new car, no car, or a “beater” is the right choice? Not clear whether the overseas camp experience will benefit or alienate your child? Uncertain what amount of gadgetry, gifting and good times is appropriate? Consider what value you convey by saying yes or no to the request. Consider whether there is a way of framing the indulgence as a privilege with responsibility.

Lastly, be careful not to over-incentivize behavior you want modeled in their interactions with others; consistent findings in studies have found that tying an external reward (money, a trip) to behavior that is internally driven (kindness, academic performance, helping around the house) can reduce the frequency of the desired behavior.

It’s no wonder those who are well-off feel confused and concerned about their families in the face of these concerns. The gut check becomes a valuable guide.

Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College, is the founder and principal of BDS Insight, an organizational consulting and executive coaching firm. She can be reached at