(3 minute read)
When people like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade commit suicide, we’re all stunned. How could someone who has everything — fame, fortune, success, admiration, romantic partners — how could they find life so painful they feel they have no choice but to exit?
It’s impossible to do any scientific research on this. Psychologists looking to study human behavior and emotions have no trouble getting their hands on as many university students as they want, but they’re not likely to get much response when they ask the rich and famous to subject themselves to an experiment. Having said that, it’s possible to make some educated guesses. So here’s what psychology has to say about the struggles that face the rich and famous.
That may sound odd, because celebrities are surrounded by others. They never look on Facebook to discover a party they weren’t invited to. But it’s hard for them to tell who is a real friend, and who is there for the reflected fame and power. Also, they live in a fishbowl where those close to them have many opportunities and incentives to reveal their secrets to the press. They are exceedingly vulnerable — a simple falling out with a friend or family member can result in their deepest secrets splashed all over the internet. They can trust few people, and they can be open and vulnerable with almost no one.
Celebrities are often isolated from the people they’ve known the longest. Childhood friends and family members are in a different social class and simple questions like “Who pays for dinner?” or “Where shall we go on vacation?” become fraught with meaning. Should the rich person help a family member with a small loan? Or a gift of money? Perhaps a big gift? The opportunities for hurt feelings abound, and drive the successful individual apart from friends and family.
Fear of Failure
When we mortals lose our jobs, it’s painful, but generally our social circle stays the same and we simply go find another job. But what does a designer or TV personality do if they fall off their pedestal? When you’ve been number one, it feels like a failure to become even number two. And if you fall further, you lose much of your social circle. People look down on you and you feel their pity that you’re now a ‘has-been’. You move to the periphery of your peers, where once you were at the center. You’ve lost the adulation, the power to make things happen, the attention that people used to pay to you. Everyone around you, having seen your success turn to failure, revels in schadenfreude (a German word meaning ‘taking pleasure in the misfortune of others’.) No wonder the rich and famous live in terror of failure.
The need to maintain social status seems hardwired into us, which is why so many people find it hard to share their secret sorrows, and try their best to look upbeat and positive. That need is amplified among celebrities because they fear, rightly or wrongly, that open knowledge of their problems will impact their careers. “Will consumers still look up to me if they know how troubled I am? Will my sponsors abandon me? Will the media sniff out the things that I’ve done and am ashamed of? Will someone close to me accept payment in return for damaging information about me?” It’s not unreasonable for the rich and famous to worry about these questions and decide that it’s far better to pretend that all is well.
And maintaining a facade of ‘all is well’ is both exhausting and alienating. It’s impossible to feel close to someone and to feel truly cared for if that person has no idea what’s really going on inside you.
Extrinsic Motivation and Materialism
Celebrities tend to be motivated by extrinsic reward; that is, they do what they do not so much because they enjoy the activity, but because they enjoy what derives from the activity. They want the fame, the money, the admiration and the power that comes from what they do. Unfortunately, pursuing extrinsic rewards is correlated with anxiety and depression. Materialistic values have also been linked to the same negative emotions. So individuals who are chasing fame, money and material possessions in the hopes of finding happiness are bound to be disappointed. They have devoted their lives to this pursuit and in the end have found it to be a false god. By that time, they feel it’s too late to change, and so the person who has ‘everything’ is condemned to live a life without hope of finding happiness.
It can, perhaps, be hard to feel sorry for people who seem to have everything. But as these recent suicides show, ‘everything’ is no substitute for meaningful connections with people we love and trust, the ability to pursue things we find intrinsically satisfying, and the safety to be able to show others how we truly feel.