| Bill Gates, who has stopped pursuing wealth in favour of “giving back”; (below) Jet-setting Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia
For some people, flying first class represents the height of luxury. But not Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, who has become the first person to buy an Airbus A380 superjumbo to use as a private jet. Given that the passenger version costs £145 million, the VIP edition — dubbed “The Flying Palace” — will surely cost a hefty chunk of change.
Another billionaire spent £83 million on a flat in the Richard Rogers Partnership’s new Hyde Park development — which was double the going rate.
Such excessive spending might not be a sign of conspicuous consumption but of addiction. “For the super-rich, houses, yachts, cars and planes are like new toys that they play with for five minutes and then lose interest in,” says psychoanalyst Manfred Kets de Vries, one of the new breed of therapists treating the angst of the very rich. “Pretty soon, to attain the same buzz they have to spend more money. All the spending is a mad attempt to cover up boredom and depression.”
According to de Vries, the super-rich are increasingly succumbing to what has been labelled Wealth Fatigue Syndrome (WFS). When money is available in near-limitless quantities, the victim sinks into a kind of inertia.
Feeling any sort of excitement means taking more and more risks, financially and physically.
Luxury holidays are replaced by abseiling in Australia and swimming with sharks. The first-class ticket of old becomes a private jet such as Prince Alwaleed’s: Boeing has 11 standing orders for such wide-bodied “mobile mansions”.
Frank James, the author of Richistan, a study of this new class, saw WFS up close.
“The rich are never happy, no matter what they have,” he told CNN. “There was this man who owned a 100ft yacht. I said: ‘This is a terrific boat.’ He said: ‘Look down the harbour.’ We looked down the marina, and there were boats two and three times as large. He said: ‘My 100ft yacht today is like a dinghy compared to these other boats.’ When else in history has someone been able to call a 100ft yacht a dinghy'”
The rich are no longer a tiny elite. There are half a million American households with assets of more than $10 million, and a study of 71 countries by Merrill Lynch and the consultancy firm Capgemini found that the fortunes of “high net worth individuals” increased by 11.4 per cent last year.
In Britain, the wealthiest self-made billionaires have trebled their fortunes over the past five years. But, as you draw up battle plans for surviving the credit crunch, spare a thought for the sufferers of WFS and how monumentally dull and isolating it is to live in a world where estates are traded like Pokemon cards.
Gardens arrive on the back of trucks; art collections fill entire wings overnight, though the owners often can’t recall the artists’ actual names. I have seen 20-year-old cypress trees craned into gardens — and out again when the owner got bored with that year’s fashionable look.
One neighbour in Holland Park tore up her house, employing the most expensive interior designer in England. But after spending the better part of £2 million on refurbishment, she tossed the contents into the skip outside.
A famous hedge fund manager spent the better part of £20 million building the most exquisite estate in Gloucestershire. As soon as he had thrown a few big parties to show it off, he sold it. “I need a new project,” he muttered.
Many who join the super-rich find it hard to keep their old circles of support. Happiness studies have repeatedly shown that being marginally better off than your neighbours makes you feel good, but being a hundred times richer makes you feel worse. So either you change your friends or live with the envy of others.
“When a relationship becomes unequal, it becomes difficult,” explains Brendan Burchell, a professor of economics and psychology at Cambridge University.
“If you’re out in a three-star restaurant, how do you split the bill when he is a super-millionaire' And if he has a driver and you consider a taxi a luxury, you stop having shared experiences.”
In the end, the super-rich become isolated — and the only way to find empathy is to surround themselves with people as rich as themselves. The happiest nations, he says, are those where people feel most equal, even if that means being less wealthy. Pentecost, a tiny island in the South Pacific, has recently been voted the happiest place on earth. They don’t have WFS — in fact, they don’t have money; they use pigs’ horns instead.
In places such as Pentecost, people actually talk to each other — indeed, belonging to a community is one of the single most important prerequisites for happiness. But when you jet between the Scottish estate, the London mansion and the chalet in Aspen, there isn’t much time to get to know the neighbours.
Families, too, can fall victim to WFS. As the men get richer, wives are either tossed out in favour of a new model or become engaged in inane activities.
“This world is full of gold-diggers, and rich men are highly suspicious,” says de Vries. “Often, they develop a form of paranoia.”
Meanwhile, for the wives, shopping trips to Paris and Milan get tedious. “Super-rich wives are effectively unemployed, and have all the same mental issues as the real unemployed,” says Jon Stokes, an organisational psychologist and executive coach with Stokes and Jolly.
Children are just as vulnerable. In America, upmarket brat camps offering psychological support for rich kids are now common. Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology and education at the Teachers College of Columbia University, found that such children are just as prone to antisocial behaviour as those from inner cities.
One in five affluent American children also suffers from clinical depression. One of the reasons given was absent parents: “These kids just get sent from house to house on private jets with nannies and tutors on board,” says a teacher who works for the very rich. “No one engages with them who isn’t staff.”
According to de Vries, the only cure for boredom and anxiety is to give back. “These people need to return to small pleasures and to stop worrying about having bigger and better toys,” he says. “It’s not what you have but what you do that makes you ultimately happy.”
The problem, though, is that your day job becomes about staying rich.
“All those people you employ, funds you have to manage and wealth advisers you have to meet must be exhausting,” says Stokes.
And boring. And then there are the five new construction projects to visit. Choosing one set of curtains is a challenge: choosing them for 20 bedrooms would finish most of us off.