Sunday, November 15, 2009

Disappointed Millionaires

Disappointment is the core emotion behind an economic recession — and it is not hard to find disappointment in the current state of the economy, or in the economy of three years ago that gave birth to the recession.

This is a strange observation to make, however, when you consider the financial circumstances of that time. The stock market was near its peak and there were more millionaires than ever before. Millionaires, you would think, should be feeling exuberant — yet surprisingly often, people who become millionaires find their new status a disappointment.

It is not that they did not want to be millionaires. Most worked hard to reach to reach that level of financial success, and when they did reach it, they felt that the achievement had validated their efforts. Yet their millionaire status did not amount to as much as they had hoped, and there is where the disappointment lies.

On the surface, you would think that people work so hard to reach millionaire status because they love money or the material abundance that goes with it, but if you really love money, you love your first five dollars, and you are happy with your success long before you reach the million-dollar mark. But when people struggle for years for millionaire status, it is almost always in the hope that being a millionaire will make them important. And in this, they are disappointed.

You can see why someone would think millionaire status would make them a VIP — a very important person. That’s the mythos of millionaires, and it was true enough barely 50 years ago. Back then, a few journalists actually compiled lists of millionaires — you could hope to get on an exclusive list. But since 1997, when at least one in 50 people in the United States is a millionaire, the only lists of millionaires are mailing lists. Being a millionaire means you are sure to get mail from advertisers wanting to sell mattresses, vacation time shares, and cosmetic surgery. When you think about what 1 in 50 means, you realize that every time you go to the supermarket, several of the shoppers in the store are millionaires, trying to decide between Heinz and Del Monte like anyone else. If you can’t pick out the millionaires, how is anyone supposed to pick you out after you become a millionaire? Millionaire status means so little now that people who watched the 2000 reality show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? told me that the show’s mystery bridegroom didn’t seem to have much going for him — and they weren’t being facetious, that really was their automatic reaction to a millionaire on television. So anyone who hoped that just being a millionaire would make them socially successful would have to discover that it was not nearly enough by itself.

Just to make this disappointment more stark, the period from 2006 to 2007 saw more than a million homeowners become millionaires from the stock market and real estate bubble, at the same time that they were struggling to avoid foreclosure after their variable-rate mortgages reset. Some were fortunate enough to keep their jobs and sell almost everything else they had in order to keep their homes. When it hits you that you are a house-poor millionaire, it’s hard to avoid reaching the conclusion that the system is stacked against you more than you thought.

Add the struggles of some of the most financially successful people in the country to the more numerous stories of people who lost jobs and homes during the same period, and the economy was pushing against an unprecedented wave of disappointment. It makes perfect sense that what followed was the worst economic crash in a lifetime.

The wretched irony of the disappointed millionaires is that there are much easier ways to be important than by amassing a million dollars. These days, a person who is in outstanding physical condition is more rare and more envied than a millionaire is, yet exemplary physical fitness is a status that the average person can hope to achieve in a mere 3,000 hours, with less hard work and less uncertainty than a student goes through to earn an MBA. And there are easier ways than this. How hard is it to stand for something, to pay attention to people . . . to be a loyal customer? Being important to people in these ways, and a hundred more you could think of, is not always easy, but it is a lot easier than becoming a millionaire.

If you are a millionaire who is asking, ”Is this all there is?” you probably already realize that that makes you a big financial target — there are people who will try to create the momentary illusion of importance for you so they can get your money. There is a better answer, of course, and it comes from going back to the question, “What was I really looking for all this time?” and not being afraid to spend your time finding better answers to this question.