There is an unspoken belief in our culture about wealth. There is a belief that wealth is the answer to all our problems. We could be happier if we had more money. All the psychological research has consistently shown that money doesn’t make you happier, unless you are living in poverty. However, I don’t think most of us believe it. As a culture, we are obsessed with wealth and the wealthy. We love watching the lives of people who have wealth. From the days of Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, to keeping up with the Kardashians, our appetite hasn’t changed. We want to observe the way the other half (of one percent) live!
The week I interviewed a woman I met 16 years ago at our daughter’s pre-school. She was the mom you wanted to hate because she was drop dead gorgeous, funny, and always in a good mood. She even looked rested and put together. We became fast friends because of our shared love of our girls and a good California Chardonnay. We spent lots of time together while our girls played. It was quite a shock to me, several years into our friendship, to learn that her father was the founder of Pizza Hut. This down to earth friend of mine had grown up in a different world, and I’d never known it.
For the past year I have longed to interview Mara about her family and the experience of growing up with that kind money. What could we all learn from listening to someone who lived it? Someone who isn’t fascinated by wealth and who actually experienced the impacts, good and bad. But, given that she hadn’t shared her reality with me for years, I knew she wasn’t eager to talk about her wealth. Mara is fierce loyal and protective of her family. She is not interested in gossip about anyone or discussions of money. Nonetheless, I knew there were things she could help us all understand. The reason I wanted to discuss the topic openly is my own fear that the longing for wealth and consumption is not making our culture happy and is, in fact, costing us and the environment a great deal. Money, wealth and happiness are complicated subjects and here was a good friend of mine who could shed light on the topic in a way few people could.
On a recent walk, Mara told me that her daughter listens to all my podcasts. It made my year, truly. To know that a girl I’d known since childhood was finding help by listening into my little podcast on happiness was amazing. So, I took the chance and asked Mara if she would be willing to be on the podcast and she agreed. I’m so happy she did.
Mara’s wisdom on this topic far exceeded my expectations. She spoke clearly about the benefits of having money, like the ability to travel and have experiences as a family. She also teased apart happiness and stress, noting that wealth has the ability to take away stress, but it doesn’t create happiness. At one point I asked her if the money had made her happy. Instead of just saying yes or no, she gave me a profound answer. She said that when she thought about her happiest times growing up, her wealth was never part of the equation. It wasn’t the fancy planes and hotel rooms or the giant house with three pools. Her happiness came in moments when she and her siblings were outside playing, making s’mores and running around. She loved family time, time with her younger brother and sister when they were babies, things that had nothing to do with the fanciness of it all. Mara described the family’s wealth by saying it was actually often “heavy” or “like a wet blanket.” Children, she explained, don’t want to go to nice restaurants all the time and sit for hours while their parents drink good wine. They want to eat Mac and Cheese like the neighbor kids.
Wealth can be isolating. It causes people to treat you differently. Mara said the reason she doesn’t tell people about her family is twofold. It is her father’s story, not hers, but more than that, it changes the way people treat her. There is a belief that each of us holds about wealth and whatever that is, positive or negative, gets injected into the relationship once people know about her family. It reminded me of why famous people often have an entourage of people who knew them prior to their fame. There is safety in knowing that people love you for you, and not for your wealth or your family name. Mara creates this safety by not talking about her family and living in the present. She told me the story of a friend at the stable she has known for over a year. They spend the week shoveling horse shit and riding. Recently this friend asked a question and learned about Pizza Hut. Mara said she noticed an instant shift and had to say clearly, “I’m still the girl who has been out here shoveling shit with you. That is who I am.”
Wealth was sometimes scary or overwhelming for her. Yes, she was able to go to the summer Olympics and hang out with Jerry Lewis during his annual telethon. However, the price of traveling was being surrounded by four armed guards and driving in a separate car from her father in order to be protected. Mara said this wasn’t something she liked at all. As she told the story, I got a clear sense of her perception at a young age, of being without her father in a car with armed men. To be a child and know that the man sitting next to you has a gun under his suit isn’t something that everyone is emotionally ready for. It wasn’t a benefit of wealth but the price she paid to spend time with her wealthy father. Most of us might think it would feel important or cool to have bodyguards. As I spoke to her, I realized that it isn’t something of status. The rich and famous have to be wary of being harmed. They don’t feel safe in public.
There are other valuable lessons about wealth and happiness in the podcast. At the very end of our conversation, Mara pointed out that, in her experience, wealth amplifies everything. If you have good intentions and a life that you love, it can amplify that. Her father, for example, loved his life. He was an athlete, and a businessman who loved competition and challenge. He was engaged and fully alive. Wealth, for him, amplified all this. It didn’t create his happiness. He was already happy. For others in the family, wealth became their focus. For people who don’t have a full life, the focus on wealth can amplify the negative. It can create a feeling of entitlement and distort reality. It makes sense. If you want to give to others and have great wealth, what an amazing opportunity. If you are greedy, power hungry, or self-centered, wealth give you the power to do great harm to the world.
If you are someone who, deep down, believes your life would be automatically better if you just had vast wealth, I encourage you to listen in to the podcast. The audio isn’t great, but the topic is well worth your time. I am thankful to Mara for putting her wisdom on this topic out in the world. With grace, she discussed honestly, the good and the difficulty of growing up in one of the wealthiest families in America.
You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:
Have a wonderful week!
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.