Why do rich people kill themselves?
February 13, 2010 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Why do rich people kill themselves?

A couple of year back when the financial crisis was in full effect I read some stories of billionaires killing themselves. Some of them were still quite wealthy even though they lost a substantial amount of money. They were still much better than most people working day to day (money wise). So why did they kill themselves?
posted by abbat to Society & Culture (48 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The same reason many people kill themselves: they are heavily identified with the static idea of themselves and the thought of dealing with a change is such shattering blow that the only alternative is to escape fully. It's not unlike people who don't flee hurricanes because their house is all that they have or know and it's not in their vocabulary to consider life beyond that.

Disclaimer: this is pure projection on my part.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:00 PM on February 13, 2010 [11 favorites]

Money doesn't buy happiness. It's a cliche, but it's the absolute truth.
posted by cecic at 4:01 PM on February 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think it's a bit of a platitude, but "the higher they are, the harder they fall" applies here.
posted by _dario at 4:03 PM on February 13, 2010

They were still much better than most people working day to day (money wise)

When a person puts a lot their self worth into how much money they have and they then lose a lot of that money, depressions and suicide may occur.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:03 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

So why did they kill themselves?

The endless chasm of poverty yawned before them. At that level of income, being an unwashed nobody is perhaps a worse fate than death.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:03 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Because money isn't everything? The question might be, why do you think that being rich brings happiness?
posted by jokeefe at 4:05 PM on February 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think people are missing the fact that abbat is begging the question.

Abbat: What stories of billionaires killing themselves even though they were still very rich? Can you name a couple? My guess is that you've misheard.
posted by Justinian at 4:06 PM on February 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can think of a couple reasons.

Wealth is relative, due to social relations. People tend to cluster with others who have similar incomes to theirs. If you lose a significant amount of money and can't afford to attend the same events etc. as your friends, you'll start to feel isolated.

Psychologically, people are somewhat irrational in that they are very reluctant to lose wages/wealth (i.e. the psychological harm from losing X dollars is much worse than the benefit from gaining X dollars). This is a big part of why recessions tend to last longer than booms - people are unwilling to accept wage cuts, and very unhappy when they have to.
posted by ripley_ at 4:07 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Dmenet at 4:09 PM on February 13, 2010

It's also possible that these billionaires were involved in financial or business doings which would affect not just them, but were going to ruin members of their families, their business and related businesses, and their clients, effectively ending their social standing. Also, they may have experienced guilt and shame over the crash. A fortune doesn't stand on its own; knowing that you have helped to ruin other firms or charities or your sister-in-law's retirement fund could drive some people over the edge.
posted by jokeefe at 4:10 PM on February 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm going to disagree that these people killed themselves despite still being rich after their losses because "money isn't everything."

The question is about people who killed themselves because they went from being billionaires to millionaires.

I remember in the midst of the crisis, I saw Hank Greenberg on Charlie Rose discussing the crash, and Charlie asked him how one of his positions was performing. Greenberg replied, "It's worthless, a few hundred million dollars or so." I don't think that statement makes him a bad person or anything, but it shows that his idea of the value of money is wildly out of proportion to what the average person would consider normal.

These people you're asking about killed themselves because to them, money was everything.
posted by mpbx at 4:13 PM on February 13, 2010

In my experience, stories like this are usually just that: stories. You might like to read up, for example, on the widespread myth of bankers tossing themselves off Wall St. window ledges during the crash of 1929.

I've known suicidally depressed wealthy people and suicidally depressed poor people. It's appealing to think of the fat cats with their boots on our faces jumping out windows when times get a little bit tough, but more often, I think, rich people commit suicide for the same mundane reasons as everyone else: alienation, addiction, and loneliness.
posted by cirripede at 4:16 PM on February 13, 2010 [10 favorites]

Because as a class they are no happier than most other groups.
posted by craven_morhead at 4:21 PM on February 13, 2010


Example? An old guy, still rich, who killed himself because he was intense pain from a degenerative spinal disorder?
posted by Justinian at 4:31 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Because people of every class kill themselves for all sorts of crazy, inexplicable reasons. Including reasons far crazier than the transition from billionaire to millionaire.
posted by fire&wings at 4:32 PM on February 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Because as a class they are no happier than most other groups.

Not true. Happiness correlates well with income. The more money you have, the happier you tend to be. But that generally isn't publicized because believing rich people are no happier makes non-rich people feel better.
posted by Justinian at 4:34 PM on February 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

(First of all, the OP is right.)

Research has shown that people's happiness has more to do with their financial success relative to their neighbors than their absolute wealth or income. Robert Frank discusses this phenomenon in his recent book The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide. To use one of his examples, the Porsche 911 used to be considered the best car around and cost a little over $100,000. Then Porsche came out with another model that was infinitesimally faster (plus some other obscure improvement in the engineering) and charged over $400,000 for it. People -- rich people, of course -- bought it. No one would have rationally assessed the imperceptible improvement of features to be worth $300,000, so why did it sell? Because rich people place immense value on their status relative to other rich people like them, and having the very best Porsche signals your high relative status.

If a billionaire massively loses money and/or a job, but still has enough money to pay for anything one could reasonably want in life, that person has basically gone through the reverse of upgrading from a $100,000 Porsche to a $400,000 one. The objective, material difference is trivial, but you have to look at the rich person's subjective, relative experience.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:47 PM on February 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

I've been thinking about this quite a bit today since I read about the suicide of Alexander McQueen. While certainly not a billionaire, he certainly hung out with them and was at the very top of the fashion world. This article gave me some answers.
posted by theperfectcrime at 4:49 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Among people who spend a lot of their daily energy worrying about rent, food, and other things low on the hierarchy of needs, I think there's a common perception that, if only the basics were taken care of, everything else would be gravy.

It's really not like that. For many rich people, the money comes attached to a lifestyle that includes, among other things, a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure to get richer, and a lot of people in their lives who want some of what they've got. If you have never experienced anything close, then it may be hard for you to imagine that this is actually stressful, but for many people, it is.
posted by bingo at 5:08 PM on February 13, 2010

Complete loss of perspective?
posted by medea42 at 5:25 PM on February 13, 2010

Honestly, I think this question says more about your own psychology and relationship to money than anything else.
posted by jefficator at 5:26 PM on February 13, 2010 [10 favorites]

Richard Cory
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favoured and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good Morning!" and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine -- we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread,
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

posted by greatferm at 5:34 PM on February 13, 2010 [8 favorites]

and I'm pretty sure I read that Robinson wrote the Richard Cory poem (which I was introduced to by Van Morrison) from a newspaper item about a rich socialite who committed suicide. although that may not be objectively true but simply wishful thinking.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:47 PM on February 13, 2010

Money means nothing if it can't get you what you want.
posted by Aquaman at 5:53 PM on February 13, 2010


It doesn't care how much money you have or how happy you're supposed to be.
posted by sallybrown at 6:00 PM on February 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

People who make a lot of money often have made their life's mission to earn as much money as they can. They value money not because of what they can buy with it, but as a measure of their personal success in life. Now imagine that your lifework has just been decimated and all those personal accomplishments you base your self-worth on turn out to be everything but. This sounds like a perfect breeding ground for suicidal thoughts.
posted by Authorized User at 6:33 PM on February 13, 2010

People's happiness is generally relative, incidentally to their neighbors' or their own present wealth, but principally to their expectations. You can be lucky in almost every way, and know it, and lose one thing that was a central part of your life as you have come to define it, and become utterly, nihilistically, suicidally miserable; as miserable as the human mind can be, and therefore by definition just as sad as a destitute, starving orphan on the day he loses his only toy. And, weirder, much more sad than that orphan on the rare day they get a single good meal.
posted by nicwolff at 6:59 PM on February 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Rich people aren't members of a different species or anything. I'm certain they commit suicide for the same reasons as other suicidal people.
posted by dogcat at 7:31 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

As other people pointed out, rich people are just like all other people; they can become suicidal for all the same reasons. What makes you think that having money is bound to make you happy no matter what?

and jeeze, do you have a timer set for exactly a week, or something? I'm beginning to wonder if you're just asking random questions out of boredom.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:39 PM on February 13, 2010

I've known, personally, a number of "rich" people, who have taken their own lives. For the most part, what I've observed is not that they took their own lives in depression, or guilt, but that they offed themselves, more or less skillfully, in the face of alternatives of loss of wealth, or social position, or family situation, that simply weren't acceptable to them. A number of these have been over 70+ years of age, and known they've had degenerative diseases, and others, of lesser age and dire circumstance, have apparently simply not wanted to deal with increasingly complicated personal/financial/legal situations.

The very rich, in my experience, are used to getting their own way, even if buying their own way, at way above market price, is the only way. To people accustomed to regular, unsolicited receipt of uneconomic proposals, including those that give them total control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation, suicide, I think, can be just another profit/loss calculation, followed shortly by an execution ceremony. For them, it's sometimes a means of demonstrating to those that remain, that they had total control, right up to the very end. Sometimes, a final "F... Y.." to those whose attention can't be had, or purchased, in any other way.
posted by paulsc at 7:59 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you think that people only kill themselves because of money?
posted by OmieWise at 8:00 PM on February 13, 2010

After further review, I think that oneirodynia is on to something here. This is fundamentally chatfilter.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:03 PM on February 13, 2010

[few comments removed - go to metatalk or go to sleep please, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:06 PM on February 13, 2010

Does money buy happiness? In my observation, poverty buys misery. Poor people commit suicide, too. Possibly a lot more often, since mental illness is a reliable path to poverty. But depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, loneliness, and sad life events happen to everybody.
posted by theora55 at 9:18 PM on February 13, 2010

Reading the question, I guessed somebody would mention Richard Cory, but although related, that old poem doesn't answer this. Agree wiith Justinian this is a leading question, so far we've got exactly one non-heresay example (Eastman discarded since he wasn't merely rich but sick and in pain).
posted by Rash at 9:56 PM on February 13, 2010

Same reason that celebrities kill themselves. Because they're people, and depression doesn't discriminate based on wealth or social status. That, plus if you've actually achieved something that few people do, something that's supposed to make everything better -- wealth or fame are the perfect examples -- and you're still depressed, that can be a strong motivator to tip you over into suicide because you no longer have the hope that if you can just be rich or just be famous and it'll all be better. No hope, in essence.
posted by davejay at 11:04 PM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The very rich, in my experience, are used to getting their own way, even if buying their own way, at way above market price, is the only way. To people accustomed to regular, unsolicited receipt of uneconomic proposals, including those that give them total control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation, suicide, I think, can be just another profit/loss calculation, followed shortly by an execution ceremony. For them, it's sometimes a means of demonstrating to those that remain, that they had total control, right up to the very end. Sometimes, a final "F... Y.." to those whose attention can't be had, or purchased, in any other way.

This is interesting and not something I would have thought of (not knowing anyone even remotely rich).

posted by jokeefe at 1:00 AM on February 14, 2010

January 2009:
"Crushed by watching his life's work slip through his fingers, Adolf Merckle, the 74-year-old Swabian billionaire, walked out into the bitter cold Monday night and threw himself under a speeding train."

"Like many German industrialists Merckle, who was a keen skier and mountain climber, kept a low profile and was little known to all but business insiders until the recent scandal to have hit his business empire. He had honorary doctorates from several German universities and was awarded the Order of the Federal Republic of Germany, First Class, in 2005."

"The breaking point came when Merckle realised that to save the remnants of his fortune, he would have to sell Ratiopharm, the pharmaceuticals division. His grandfather had started the company in 1915. It had passed to Merckle’s father, Ludwig, and had weathered the storms of the 20th century, above all its requisitioning under Hitler to make field medical kits for the Wehrmacht. Adolf Merckle was 74, with three sons and a daughter. It was his sacred duty – that is how he saw it – to pass on the pharmaceuticals unit to his children."

February 2010:
"Industrial heir Ludwig Merckle is selling Ratiopharm as part of concessions made to creditor banks by his late father Adolf Merckle, who committed suicide in January 2009 after losing control over his business empire to lenders during the financial crisis."
posted by iviken at 2:02 AM on February 14, 2010

Justinian: "

Not true. Happiness correlates well with income. The more money you have, the happier you tend to be. But that generally isn't publicized because believing rich people are no happier makes non-rich people feel better.

Scientific studies do not match this. From the TED2010 conference:

"Psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says millions of dollars won't buy you happiness, but a job that pays $60,000 a year might help.

Happiness levels increase up to the $60K mark, but "above that it's a flat line," he said.

"Money does not buy you experiential happiness but lack of money certainly buys you misery," he said. But the real trick, Kahneman said, is to spend time with people you like."
posted by sharkfu at 2:37 AM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I spent a couple of weeks researching the relationship between money and happiness while writing a book. Despite a lot of pop culture claims to the contrary, money does buy happiness. At least, money correlates to happiness. This is true across cultures and income levels.

However, as you note, the effects aren't very strong once you get past a certain level. Daniel Gilbert once cited the "magic" figure as $40,000 or $45,000 or something like that. (There's an article with this info out there on the web, but I don't have the URL handy.)

So, as you move from poverty to middle class, money tends to buy a lot of happiness. Beyond that, money continues to buy happiness, but at a much reduced rate. People who have million dollar incomes are happier than those with $100,000 incomes, but only marginally so, whereas those with $100,000 incomes are much happier than those with $10,000 incomes.

There are tons of great books out there about happiness right now.

But to answer the question: As others have said, rich people kill themselves for the same reasons other people do...
posted by jdroth at 6:03 AM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Others have already addressed the implicit assumption in your question that there is a correlation between wealth and happiness. There is another interesting assumption regarding 'wealth'.

Your profile says that you are in Canada, where something like 3,700 people took their own lives in 2005. In 2006, the median household income in Canada was CA$53,634. That's in the top 1% of incomes globally.

So, your question could be re-written:
Why do rich people kill themselves? Thousands of Canadians kill themselves each year, even though most of them are very wealthy. They are still much better off than most people working day to day (money wise). So why do they kill themselves?

Most people would find that question odd, partly because they realise that wealth and happiness do not directly correlate, but also because of the way they see wealth, which is rarely on a global scale. (Why do you think this is?) Generally, wealth is viewed relatively within one's country, but comparisons can also be made within a social group, place of residence, industry and with a self-image, among others.

When you look at a CEO and consider them too rich to be unhappy, remember a miner in Burundi might have the same difficulty imagining why you might ever feel low.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 6:19 AM on February 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

A farmer in Bangladesh might say, "Why do Americans kill themselves? Even if an American loses his home to foreclosure and has no money in the bank, he is very unlikely to starve in the street or die of an infectious disease."

Why would being in the top 0.1% of incomes have any different effect on depression and suicide compared to the top 5% of incomes, like all of us are?

So far, we've seen no evidence that it is, other than a single story about a billionaire killing himself.
posted by miyabo at 6:19 AM on February 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I would be interested in knowing how suicide rates compare in wealthier countries compared to very poor countries.

My theory is that people who are better off on a material level are often more broadly unhappy than people who struggle to put food on the table on a daily basis. My thinking here is that if your primary focus in life is mere day-to-day survival and keeping your family alive, you don't get caught up dwelling on larger, more complex and unknowable issues like wondering what the meaning of your life is and if it's even worth living. Also, when you're accustomed to being in a position of comfort and/or privilege, the prospect of losing all that can be terrifying.

There are people born with severe physical handicaps that seem to be much more grateful for what they do have than unhappy about what they don't have. They have to work harder every day to do things that come so easily for people who don't have that handicap. I would say the same can apply to money. I imagine it's easy to have it all and still want more. You take things for granted that other people have to struggle for every day, and it gives your mind the time to go to all sorts of dark places, especially when faced with the prospect of losing everything you have.
posted by wondermouse at 8:23 AM on February 14, 2010

Very poor people (at home and abroad) might have more family/social richness, due to lack of mobility. A dozen cousins living in the same neighborhood, kids nearby instead of each a plane-ride away in a separate state, childhood friends they've never left behind. Those kinds of broad and deep ties are why schizophrenics in third world countries often have better outcomes than those in the West.

(Another factor for schizophrenics in 3rd world nations is lack of stigma, relative to developed nations. Along those lines, the non-wealthy may live in less fear of being judged socially for lack of job/material status, signs of visible aging or illness, etc.)
posted by availablelight at 9:05 AM on February 14, 2010

Do you know the difference between the word Sociopath and the word Psychopath? There is none, really. The word Sociopath stemmed from the theory that poor people were more likely to become psychopaths than rich people.

Of course, it turned out to not be true (and many a movie has since been made about how rich people are coldblooded bastards). Psychopathy, Schizophrenia, Depression have roughly equal levels of prevalence at all levels of society.

As countries get richer you'd think the people would be happier, but they're not. They're just as happy (or unhappy) as when they were poor. Changes in wealth do not - I repeat DO NOT automatically lead to greater levels of happiness and satisfaction.

Just as a poor person could kill themselves due to some sort of setback that affected their self image, so could a rich person.

I see no special reason a rich person should kill themselves just because they're less rich. Then again, I see no special reason a poor person should kill themselves just because they're more poor.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was complaining to a career counselor about my job, and she said "it could be a lot worse, you could be a lawyer." Being rich isn't everything. The more money a lot of people have the more trapped they are. Read "Bonfire of the Vanities". The guy's a millionaire, trapped with a trophy wife and lifestyle that eats up every dime.
posted by xammerboy at 7:11 PM on February 14, 2010

Change is stressful, and major change is majorly stressful, and you don't have to hit absolute rock-bottom to take it personally. (It's worth noting that in the case of Adolf Merckle, the one authentic example of a billionaire suicide that anyone seems to have found, it wasn't just the financial loss, but the fact that he seemed to have reached the same status in Germany as Bernie Madoff has in the U.S., and he may have simply decided that he was too old to repair his fortune or reputation.)

Alternatively, consider confirmation bias. Nobody wants to read about someone who comes out of a billion-dollar loss grinning and saying, "Hey, I'm still set for life! So I have to sell the island, big whoop."
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:52 AM on February 15, 2010

So I just found this thread and I am quite surprised that no one has brought up Emile Durkheim. I will not myself attempt to summarize his exhaustive work on this subject, On Suicide, for it is an incredible read you ought to treat yourself to, and I am unqualified to give an exegesis. But here's a quote from the intro, by Richard Sennett, to the new translation of the book:

The statistics he assembles about anomic suicide are intriguing in themselves and add up logically. Durkheim's contemporaries thought that poverty bred suicide. While poverty certainly induces misery and despair, Durkheim showed that it did not induce despair pushed to the extreme of self-destruction; on the contrary, the permanently poor have lower rates of suicide than those above them. He explains this in two ways: the poor know what the economic rules are, and know the rules are stacked against them; in turn, the very clarity of their situation stiffens their will to struggle.

Durkheim found that, unsurprisingly, suicide rises among more prosperous people when the economy turns down; pushed off balance they don't know what to do. He further discovered that, surprisingly, suicide rates rise in boom times among people who are moving up. Or, rather, this statistic will surprise us only if we disconnect Durkheim's sociology from the literary culture of his time.

There you go.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:33 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

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