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Rethinking what it means to be rich (intro)

Talking about a new kind of affluence

Rethinking what it means to be rich

Show me the money!

Something I’ve had to learn the hard way – and as you may well know: Most of adult life is spent trying to solve the problem of economics. We need money to survive and thrive. Often we don’t have enough of it and need more. At a quick estimate about 45% of our waking lives is spent dealing with this issue.

Unless, of course, we are rich.
Being rich really does solve this problem.

If I’m being honest, I would like to be rich. I regularly dream about what I would do if I won the lottery and revel in the idea of having that much money that I just didn’t have to worry about earning any more of it. I’ve enjoyed watching reality TV property shows where the buyers have some extravagant sum to spend in some idyllic location, or construct their dream home. Most of us, if we let ourselves go there – want more than we actually have, and maybe can ever hope to get. Some will say they’re not interested – honestly, godspeed for those for which it is true – but for most it seems the reality is we wouldn’t mind having the options that become available to the rich.

But as it stands, not everyone will ever be rich in the way the rich are. Even if all the world’s estimated total wealth were divided evenly between every person—the wealth per person comes in at somewhere between $3000 - $10000. It seems it’s factually impossible for everyone to be classically cash rich.

Meanwhile wealth creates more wealth, resulting in a vast inequality between an exclusive elite and the rest of the human race. The pursuit of this exclusivity is the source of ongoing extensive amoral non-goodness. The 2008 banking crisis possibly being the greatest example of the worst of this—driven by an unparalleled selfishness, greed and irresponsibility—it destabilised everything. This endless scrambling of many to get the better over everyone else breeds ever more instability, insecurity and inequality. And the more unequal a society is the worse it is – for everybody.[Reference 1]

Simultaneously, those of us living in industrialised societies have never had it so good. Despite this we seem to have an ungrateful attitude to the degree of affluence we have already attained. We’ve quickly become accustomed to this unprecedented wealth and it never seems to be quite enough. In some ways this is admirable—an endless desire to improve and develop is no bad thing in my opinion – but when it comes to affluence, I think we need to be clear with ourselves about how much is enough. These days that line can be difficult to discern thanks to endless advertising saying its ok to buy and buy and buy and buy.

In the developing world, television is raising the aspirations of vast, relatively poor populations, to seek material wealth as a measure of success. This is adding an impossible burden to an already unsustainable amount of global neediness—as if it was really possible for everybody in the first place.

Meanwhile we live on a planet with dwindling resources available for our increasing populations and governments totally obsessed with economic growth, in a system that has significant limits to growth. We simply can’t really keep growing in the way we have. We need to reset our economics to a sustainable non-growthic focus on equilibriums, ecology and stability.

This is all vastly problematic! I suspect in a few hundred years we will look back at this age with a genuine disgust and awe for our mainstream obsession with what are largely futile preoccupations—born of modernistic and materialistic ideas and values of success. Our descendants will document the endless struggles of most people to just get by when there is clearly extensive wealth that can be shared: mismanaged and misappropriated by the ‘winners’ in the fight for ‘success’.

Affluence creates and equates to: free time, free energy, free space, freedom to think, to learn, freedom of opportunity, freedom to invent, innovate and renew.

Affluence is important

On the other hand, historically affluence has been a critical foundation for cultural innovation and development. Affluence creates and equates to: free time, free energy, free space, freedom to think, to learn, freedom of opportunity, freedom to invent, innovate and renew. The more of it we have the better, and the more people having equal access to it the better for everyone. Considering the high personal price most of us pay to achieve even a modocom of these things, a discussion on how we can all improve our lot is a pressing concern.

In a future where not everyone can realistically be rampantly cash rich, where we can’t have endless economic growth, we desperately need new formats and conceptions of affluence. Is it conceivable we could innovate a new kind of affluence that isn’t dependant on having lots of money—but simultaneously provides the same benefits of cash affluence? What would an accessible, common, cash poor, sustainable, stable, robust, broad-scale affluence look like? How could it work?

Can we conceive of a new affluence that is so attractive, dignified and viable, and fundamentally better, that it genuinely makes traditional affluence look sad, unattractive and shallow, if not downright wrong? Could we come to envision a world where personal wealth empires do literally become socially offensive—even for the rich? Can we invent even greater conceptions of wealth and manifest them in our daily lives so much so that alternatives become less attractive and more importantly, politically and socially non-competitive?

It seems we need to fundamentally evolve to find ways of subverting our endless sense of not having enough with new modes of happiness and wellbeing. Elementary to this is the development of an interest and ability to supersede and thwart our ancient survival drives that are obsessed with sex, status and money—augmenting and subsuming into higher formats and reasons for Human being.

I’m going to talk about how the possibility of us innovating a post-survival style of Human being could provide a new orientation and locus of how and why we strive to thrive in the first place. In the process we could very pragmatically redefine what our core concepts of what wealth and success actually look like.

To create a more stable, sustainable human world we need to think about our lives in a larger context and innovate new conceptions what true success really looks like.

So how much really is enough?

Rethinking what it means to be rich (intro)

Talking about a new kind of affluence

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Don’t eat the rich, just think about them for a minute

If we want to be prosperous by any measure, it’s good to take a look at the official gold standard of affluent success: the rich. If you are rich: erm...hallo, you can skip this bit smile — also, send money.

Imagine you plus 10 million pounds. That’s what a rich person is. You with lots of money. You with similar fears and desires: now very wealthy. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that for all kinds of reasons. I mean, rich people generally tend to be of a specific set of values, usually modernistic (achievist, entrepreneurial reductionistic, post-traditional, innovative, individualistic, pre-postmodern). Unfortunately these modes of values tend to be the ones that breed the amoral greed that drove the 2008 banking crisis. I feel that’s usually what we are most concerned with when we speak of ‘the rich’ – the generally Machiavellian and amoral values that coincide with many of the modernistic approaches to being Human.

Modernistic values strongly contrast and fundamentally conflict with many post-modern and more progressive values. Because modernistic values and the modernistic era (~1543 to ~2008?) is where the really really rich mostly come from, they tend to get it from all sides—but there are many very not at all rich modernists. There are also many very rich traditionalists and many very rich post-moderns too. So I think we should keep a separation here between values and wealth. They just aren’t the same thing. Combining them clouds the discussion. In combination with that, I would like to emphasise here my intentional lack of rhetorical violence towards the ‘rich’. Progressive attitudes towards rich people are often very aggressive actually encourage division at least and violence as an extreme possibility. I don’t. Everyone knows the wrongness of violence—using it or advocating it in the name of progressive values always denigrates them. More to the point: there’s nothing inherently wrong with being well off. This entire article is about how all of us could maybe become really affluent in a new kind of way.

I’m trying to make a different point here: we all have a human problem, being that we’re all, well, human. The rich worry a lot and they suffer in their worry the way we suffer. The saying ‘first world problem’—like the hassle of sorting out your sporting equipment or buying a replacement blender—probably applies more to the rich, but suffer and worry they do. Whilst it seems that happiness and well being increases proportionately to income [Reference 2], it seems it ultimately doesn’t matter. In a recent survey of 4000 millionaires it was reported over 50% of them they believed they needed approximately at least 500% more wealth to be happy. Only 13% believed they could be happy with what they had. Another study by Boston College surveyed people with an average net worth of $78m found that they felt they needed about 25% more money to really be OK.[Reference 3] This is fascinating. Of all our problems it seems the greatest is that we humans can get used to anything. After a while, no matter what it is, we get accustomed to it, start taking it for granted and then start needing something else, something different, something more. I think it might be safe to assume the challenge here is to find a way to be satiated by life. Apparently having everything we could need in the world doesn’t do it for us – so what is it then?

So much of our behaviour is driven by greed, and greed seems to find it’s origins in fear: fear of not having social status, fear of not having the control that money sometimes provides, fear of being left behind, fear of not having enough. All said and done, that’s a sad basis for economics. Surely part of true prosperity begins with freedom from fearing each other.

It seems the bottom line with wealth is this: whilst wealth does provide greater happiness and well being, it does not provide satiation of our apparently endless need for more. The innovation of a new affluence critically depends upon the ability to thwart this embedded sense to endlessly always needing more of this or that, to feel ok. I think it’s a survival response built into our animal selves, and we need to learn how to overcome it with newer higher motives and concerns.


Beyond that, what is it that vast wealth really provides? In the end, what is it that the rich have more of than the rest of us?

After writing several lists I’ve condensed the luck of the rich into some essentials:

- More Time/Increased Freedom /Greater Opportunity to live a life that reflects what’s most important to them
- Ability to provide opportunity to relatives, friends and offspring
- Ease of physical affluence: healthier lifestyle, better housing, nicer possessions e.g. grand designs house vs crap welfare terrace house.
- Status ( in social worlds that measure status by wealth)
- Networks of power: relative “status” and free time provide the opportunity to connect with others that have the same.

Freedom is basically what all these affluences add up to, as well as access and ease of access to all the things they need. The Rich have much more control over their lives. This is the essence of it. Ideally a renewed format of affluence natively includes much of the above list without requiring money to have them. If we want a post-money focused prosperity we need to innovate new ways of getting control.

Interestingly the rich also tend to have a particular attitude to life. The statistics on the number of superich who started out with comparatively nothing at all is significant. There’s lot of them. Many rich people have an entrepreneurial innovative creative industrious and attitude and outlook. They generally prioritise achievement, innovation and success as measures of value. I think these are admirable traits – unfortunately they tend to operate in no greater context than one’s own success—which ultimately has proven to be problematic.

Noticing this helps explain something: why, broadly speaking, rich people who have more than they need keep seeking more wealth. Actually what they are doing (in part) is pursing what’s most important to them, industrious innovation, achievement and further success. The money in many cases is secondary, but obviously provides excellent feedback and encouragement to continue pursing the same value mode.

On status: Rich attract other people who want to associate with rich people. Generally, women like rich men – or more specifically, men with resources and capacity – most clearly designated by large quantities of money. The best women will try and find the best rich men and so being rich as a guy is great way off attracting a great mate etc. This power of affluence in sexuality is obviously one of the absolutely core drivers amongst men for seeking wealth. Outgrowing these basic motivations means creating a truly more attractive, desirable version of what real affluence is.


Interestingly there are some things the rich can also lack. For one they can lack an authentic robustness. Basing one’s success on material affluence alone is really a very weak foundation to happiness and stability. What or who would you be if you lost it all?

Also, I think it’s interesting that wealth doesn’t at all directly relate to class. Rich people can be spectacularly unclassy. Whilst distinctions on class divisions are usually based upon material wealth—having lots of money doesn’t guarantee any class for a single second. You can buy someone else’s class, but it doesn’t mean you actually have any of your own. From the point of view of the New Affluent, the most important differences between people are in their degree of development, depth and subtlety, which can have absolutely nothing to do with money whatsoever.

To use a high profile example—would you say Donald Trump is an expression of a human being at the peak of development? I wouldn’t. I think there are probably hundreds of thousands (at least!) that could govern better than he does. I think he’s an interesting example of a rich person – he has all the money one could possibly need, has more power than most – yet he’s clearly immature by many measures. Money, influence, status and power do not for a second determine your capacity for humanity. Satisfying all the problems of survival i.e. materially, politically, socially doesn’t provide Donald with self knowledge generally possessed by your average post-modern American citizen. In this way he is profoundly impoverished and incapacitated, and probably doesn’t know it. He’s the perfect poster boy for a simple fact: Beyond a certain point, material affluence is irrelevant without genuine development in our capacities for Human being.

Is being materially rich in and of itself enough to satiate the needs of our existence? To the animal in our Hominid brains, it is. But, we are also Human. To me that means we’re something at least partially post-animal, something, partially, altogether new. And it is the needs of Humans we also need to fulfill. On it’s own, material wealth is futile – our Humanity includes an ever deepening and growing awareness of ourselves and everything else – designer handbags, Ferraris, open plan lounges or celebrated social status won’t satiate the needs of a deepening, self-aware and morally developed being.

Beyond a certain point, material affluence is irrelevant without genuine development in our capacities for human being.


At what point are we affluent? Is it when our needs are met? Over-met? Having been round the houses with this a couple of times I’ve come up with some rather obvious answers to start with: An ideal affluence or prosperity is when our needs are met, and easily met. Affluence doesn’t need to be excess, just access.

Interestingly, excess usually means we don’t have to worry about access—and not having to worry about getting the things you need is probably the most important aspect of classic affluence. For the sake of defining a sustainable and collective affluence—I’m defining ‘access’ as the kind you don’t need to worry about not having. Ideally, that means we don’t need to take or have more than we need—but when we need it and don’t have it, it’s readily accessible. Maybe this is in part why the richest are always trying to get richer—because they know they still have to worry about access?

Interestingly, also, there are degrees of affluence in relationship to any particular need: For example, being fed with a meal of baked beans on toast will keep you alive but isn’t the full nines in a five star Michelin restaurant, and probably won’t taste as good (Yeah, I know some people who would disagree with that, too). An old bashed up kitchen is a kitchen. A new spacious open plan modern architect designed kitchen is probably a better kitchen. When needs are met, they can be met to differing degrees of subtlety and quality. Affluence is extended in the degrees of subtlety in how needs are met.

Interestingly in regards to a meal – over either example provided I would prefer a locally sourced (ideally from a food forest) organic, ecologically and sustainably produced, ethicurian meal of simple unprocessed ingredients, – clearly I have certain personal leanings: real prosperity is also the freedom and ability we have to live life by the values we hold most dear—what we perceive as absolutely required will differ according to our values. This is no small point.

Humans are fascinating creatures in that our needs don’t end with the fulfilment of basics like food, shelter, safety and community. As soon as these needs are fulfilled new ones arise – and it is only in the light of an deeper understanding of this that we can really understand ourselves as cultures and a species.


An anchoring reference for discussions like these for decades has been Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [Reference 4]. As a model it’s now somewhat discredited but it’s still a great starting point for talking about needs.

Maslows hierarchy is almost always portrayed in the form of a pyramid which he never actually intended, commissioned or designed—nor does it appear in any of his works. The pyramid is someone else’s interpretation. Here we depict it [Fig 1a.] in a series of radiations of need alongside levels of individual development [Fig 1b], and stages of cultural emergence [Fig 1b].

There’s a stunning correlation, between Maslow’s hierarchy, stages of individual development, and the cultural modes of large populations in entire epochs of human history [Fig 1b] [Reference 5]. In terms of history, Maslow’s needs could be seen being fulfilled by entire cultural waves. Survival bands fulfilled physiological needs, tribal groupings provided safety and kinship, traditional (religious/nationalistic) innovated new forms of belongingness, modern achievism could be said to reflect self-esteem needs whilst self actualisation is postmodern.

Stages [Fig 1b] are broad systemic descriptions of human developments which in reality are far less clinical and not actually divided by neat reductionistic lines as I have done here—every single individual in our populations being at their own unique stage or state of growth. It’s a broadscale description that’s handy for broadscale discussions like this. Each of these stages in our development are characterised by several aspects including (but not only): moral development (Lovenger), cognitive capacity, values (Graves/Beck/Wilber) and needs (Maslow) that develop and deepen at each new stage. [Note 1]

Needs need meeting every day, so they are always with us. As different needs are dominant at different times (unlike stages of development which are much less dynamic), Maslow never meant his hierarchy to be a stage theory. Each day we need to eat and sleep and be loved by our families and friends. However, whilst you can theoretically meet self-actualisation needs before physiological needs, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s easier to do that when you are not about to get shot or starve to death—so a sequential or stage approach to needs holds it’s own well enough to be integrated with stage theory for broad discussion.

Interestingly, stages of development are always with us, too. Each one is a always a part of us and available to referral should the conditions of our lives require it. In Keagan’s and Graves stages of development [Fig 1b], each stage remains a fundamental part of us as we grow through them. The preceding stage is fundamental to the next—it’s where the next stage emerges from—but once arrived at it is the locus of that individuals existence. Each broad stage is a whole world of meaning making and need. Higher needs and values together subsume and deprioritise concerns that were otherwise principle reasons for being. [Note 2]

The reason I mention all this is: What’s meaningful, valuable and perceived as an overriding need to an individual critically depends on where they’re at – and where we’re at as cultures—and we are not all in the same place. This means what’s perceived as affluence to some is not affluence to others as their values and needs are different.

Previously I mentioned a general interest of modernists in achievement, innovation and profit? A life without these things for such individuals is bland and not really that worth living. It’s really important to them – so an abundance of achievement is where so much of the riches in life lie. For a progressive liberal interested in social justice, equal rights, self determination, liberty and sustainability, what’s considered affluent looks completely different. There’s great value in collective equality and more socialistic formats of organisation. The progressive affluence looks very different to a modern version of affluence.

Beyond the basics of physical survival we usually strive for affluence in what is meaningful to us. That could be getting respect on the street, time with your church, launching a tech startup or achieving new equalities in your social sphere. It applies to whatever is most meaningful to you—your abundance in it is part of your affluence.

...real prosperity is also the freedom and ability we have to live life by the values we hold most dear - what we perceive as absolutely required will differ according to our values. This is no small point.

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Note 1.

Here I’m comparing successful models of individual development with collective models of development. Whilst Grave’s work wasn’t specifically about collective or cultural modes, his protoges Dr Don Beck and Christopher Cohen proceeded to extend a model of cultural emergence from his work which has also been adopted and developed by Ken Wilber. Otherwise, this comparison isn’t based on any research—though Clare Graves did successfully compare his results with Lovenger, Kohlberg and many others in his book The Never Ending Quest. I don’t understand why this stunning correlation of individual and cultural emergence, or in other words the correlation between individual maturities and the entire structure of Human history, isn’t done more often. I suspect that the level of research required—because of the extensive detail involved—would prevent it easily surviving academia. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, though. Beside Wilber, Beck and Cohen, there are other examples of this thinking/research, including Jean Gebser’s work The Ever-Present Origin and also recently described to me as some of the thinking of Owen Barfield. Go to reference in main text

Note 2.

This is the nature of emergence in all systems, material, biological or cultural: the previous development is the foundation that is built upon (included) and moved beyond (transcended). The previous stage is fundamental to the new stage—but is subsumed within new priorities, it’s not the active or exposed system unless conditions require it’s reactivation. [Reference 5] Go to reference in main text

Reference 1.

The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, 2010. Go to reference in main text

Reference 2. Go to reference in main text

Reference 3. Go to reference in main text

Reference 4.

A Theory of Human Motivation, A. H. Maslow (1943) Go to reference in main text

Reference 5.

Clare Graves, The Never Ending Quest, 2005. Go to reference in main text

Reference 6.

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything, 2001. Go to reference in main text

Rethinking what it means to be rich (intro)

Talking about a new kind of affluence

Download a free PDF of this article - requires email address. Privacy: We will not share your data