Are rich families less happy?

"We always say money shouldn’t get in the way of friendship but it's equally true when it comes to family relationships."

"We always say money shouldn’t get in the way of friendship but it's equally true when it comes to family relationships." Photo: Getty Images. Posed by model unrelated to this story.

Last week my kids and I threw some money into a wishing well.  It was not your usual wishing well.  Located in a ritzy Sydney suburb where the council highly regulates wishes it actually had labelled grids across the top of the water.  My daughter’s 10 cents landed on ‘world peace’.  After an incredibly brief ‘yay’ a shadow of desire crossed her face and she asked me for another coin.  This one landed on ‘winning the lottery’.   Now I may have a science degree but I’m still greedy so I marched her to the newsagent and bought a ticket.  As she chose the numbers I chose what to do with the winnings.

It’s a game many of us admit to playing.  I have a friend who often can’t sleep, as she’s so busy spending her imagined millions in her mind.  However, that day I decided to limit my fantasies to enough cash for a great city house and a beautiful beach house and maybe a bit of cash for an overseas trip.

This is not only because I follow the Buddhist belief that too much desire makes us unhappy.  It’s not just because I vowed ten years ago to follow an Indian famer’s advice to stop looking at the rich and thinking I am poor and instead look at the poor and think I am rich.  It’s not even because studies show that wealthy people are more selfish, less empathetic, less compassionate and less generous.

Bianca Rinehart, Gina Rinehart and Ginia Rinehart.

Bianca Rinehart, Gina Rinehart and Ginia Rinehart.

It’s also because I don’t want to wreck my children’s lives.


Recently Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest sat his kids down and talked to them about the family fortune.  The mining magnate told them ‘you will feel more satisfaction if you do it yourself’.  This morning he’s announced he’s pledged $65 million dollars to Western Australian universities. But in doing so he’s giving a gift to his family as well.  Because too much money can be a corrosive curse on family life. 

It’s almost impossible for most of us to understand what it would be like to be born into a rich and powerful family.  But we don’t need to imagine when we can clearly see how money corrodes some of the wealthiest families in the country.

Witness Gina Rinehart’s current court fight with her two eldest children over the family trust.  I confess I find it hard to read the stories and almost sick to summarise them.  But basically two of the children of the richest woman in the world are suing her over the management of a 5 billion dollar trust set up for them by their grandfather.  It’s as awful to witness as the break down of Gina’s own relationship with her adored father when he married his housekeeper.  WA Today recently ran photos of the family long before the splits. Gina sits cross-legged in a sarong, cuddling baby Bianca while smiling at her sweet, loving, precious toddler John.  She looks at her son in smitten adoration and pride.  It’s unimaginable that 35 years on she’d be communicating with these same kids via lawyers in court.

It doesn’t matter whose side you are on.  The spectacle is brutal, ugly and sad. We always say money shouldn’t get in the way of friendship but it's equally true when it comes to family relationships.

I’ve always scoffed at the very idea of a ‘poor little rich boy’ but clearly it’s become a cliché for a reason.  Family money and power can indeed be a curse.

Channel 9 used Sir Frank Packer’s vicious berating of his son Kerry to great affect in its recent drama ‘Power Games’.  Yet it seems most TV viewers didn’t want to know about the bitter infighting for the right to run the empire nor the rivalry with Rupert Murdoch.  The series didn't rate that well.  The second episode was actually directed by filmmaker David Caesar who admits he approached the job with a ‘working class chip on his shoulder’.  I used to judge ‘Race Around the World’ with Caesar and I know he is ‘savage about those born into privilege’ yet even David found a new found respect for Kerry and Clyde after he read about how their father treated them.

Now the Murdoch Empire has its own struggles.  I’ve just finished Paul Barry’s book ‘Breaking News’ and found it hard not to feel some sympathy for children bred to be heirs and successors.   Barry theorises one day the company roles may be split between the children.   I hope they can share if they want it.   The weight and demand of expectation has obviously given them great drive but it would make me run for a hippy commune.

The closest I’ve come to being part of a dynasty was the fact that my father, grandfather and both great-grandfathers were all doctors.  I was the only child in my family that got enough marks in the HSC to study medicine but when I pointed this out to my father and asked him if he wished me to do so he laughed.  I have a pathological fear of blood, guts, pain and basic bodily functions and he and I knew I wouldn’t have made it through first year.

My father did not believe in following tradition or a ‘family business’.  Yet he believed in being scrupulously fair with money.  We all got the same pocket money and if someone ever needed help we all got help.  All the same I do remember minor resentments in childhood that I now see play out in my own kids interactions. Kids have an innate sense of fairness and bristle and hold onto hurt if they perceive favouritism – financial or emotional.  So imagine the set up when you are bred to fight for the top job AND the fortune of a family.  It makes me as queasy as a first year med student seeing their first cadaver.

And if I still haven’t convinced you that money makes things hard, consider the fate of some of the offspring of Industrialist J. Paul Getty who once said ‘money isn’t everything but it sure keeps you in touch with your children’.  Getty was the richest man in the world in the mid 1960s and is now remembered as a great philanthropist for art, research and conservation.  Yet Getty would take his son out and deduct the cost of his dinner from the pocket money and even complained at the cost of treatment of another son’s brain tumour.  In 1973, one of his grandson’s (John Paul III) was kidnapped in Rome and Getty refused to pay a ransom until a severed ear of the teenager was sent in the mail.  Even then Grandpa Getty paid the maximum amount he could claim on income tax and lent his son the rest while charging interest.  This son, J.Paul Jr., had fallen on bad times after becoming addicted to drugs but don’t feel too sorry for him.  He got clean and inherited a lot of money but couldn’t help his traumatised son avoid his own addiction problems and then wouldn’t pay for medical care after he suffered a stroke.  Thankfully the son of the kidnapped and abandoned third John Paul escaped the name and the fate of his father and grandfather.  Balthazar Getty is an actor in Hollywood.   

So that’s why I’m not a fan of being filthy rich.  But if I ever am I’ll model myself on Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ted Turner, Chuck Feeney and Gene Simmons from Kiss.  All plan to give away most of their fortunes.  When I win the lottery, I’ll do the same.

Only problem is, last week something went dreadfully wrong with the draw.  My daughter’s numbers didn’t come up.  The wishing well is obviously faulty.  We are still waiting for world peace as well.  They are probably both as unattainable as each other.  But after watching the lives of the super wealthy I know which one I wish for.  

All the same, I’m open to taking your beach house off your hands if you don’t want to spoil your kids.  



  • I think I would still prefer to be filthy rich and have some of the problems you highlight rather than be filthy poor and staving to death in some war torn corner of the globe.

    Date and time
    October 15, 2013, 8:39AM
    • history is littered with stories of dysfunctional rich families. Look at the mughal empire in the subcontinent. Succession plans often meant siblings killed each other for the top prize, usually males only. Thank goodness we have evolved in these modern times, now the action plays out in a court of law.

      Date and time
      October 15, 2013, 9:08AM
      • At least the rich kids can console themselves that they will inherit everything in the end. Poor kids who come from the same kind of dysfunctional families inherit nothing except perhaps debts.

        Date and time
        October 15, 2013, 11:02AM
        • Ummm... please explain " Now I may have a science degree but I’m still greedy".
          What has one to do with the other?

          I think you need to listen your indian farming friend and stop focussing on Martyrdom and wealth. Just enjoy what you have...

          Date and time
          October 15, 2013, 11:08AM
          • cranky: it's called humour - of the self-deprecating kind. Sarah is communicating that she does not believe in wishing wells (people who have science degrees tend not to believe in such things) but despite herself she had "a bob each way" - just in case there was something in her daughter's toss of the coin and the wishing well's prophecy.

            GRW Dasign
            Date and time
            October 15, 2013, 3:13PM
          • That's right. For someone with a science degree the writer makes unfounded assumptions...which is not what scientists are meant to do.
            John Hancock, Gina's son, does not look unhappy to me. He was featured in smh recently and from what I can gather he is just fighting for the money that he is meant to have access to. Why should he not have what is meant to be his? He never said he was unhappy.
            The Murdochs look pretty happy too, so why does the author assume they are unhappy just because of a book by local journo?
            Not fair and not right .

            Date and time
            October 15, 2013, 3:20PM
        • Define happiness...
          Most people all over the world do not comprehend, (and rich people even less) what happiness really is.
          Light cannot exist without darkness, sound cannot be without silence, no evil without good, no right without wrong...Happiness cannot exist without Pain. Happiness is internal, inside you not outside, not external and certainly not material...Furthermore, unaccomplished & undeserved material wealth is the worst of soul destroying. pain no gain. Work hard, don't fear pain, embrace pain and at the end of your efforts and sacrifices...Happiness, always.
          Again, remember...the road to hell (more correctly...great suffering) is a beautiful, easy & wide road paved with all riches and precious stones and many people take this road, whereas the road to pure happiness is narrow, hidden, small and insignificant....but it's the true one.
          Rich families cannot be more or less happy than the poor ones, it's simply not possible, the universe would not allow it; it's just the rich families especially the children who have not endured the "pain/sacrifices" of their parent's efforts are happily taking the wide, easy road....and have been (easily) fooled. If anything outside yourself is "making" you happy...destroy it, detach yourself from it asap, you're being misled. True happiness is inside yourself and the poor person has it just as the rich, perhaps a touch more since they endure more pain...

          Date and time
          October 15, 2013, 11:36AM
          • Well said!

            Date and time
            October 15, 2013, 2:17PM
          • Maybe there's different definitions of happiness to suit different people? Some might be perfectly happy starving to death in a concentration camp because all their happiness comes from within, whereas others may not.

            Date and time
            October 15, 2013, 2:33PM
          • Interesting reading,

            Happiness is indeed inside everyone heart, but to cultivate it requires special wisdom, intellegent, experiences, cultures, philosophical approaches, sciences, educations, good parenting etc ...

            So truly happiness is unreachable, and definition of happiness might be different from one person to the next, so it is bias, since evolution is part of our genes, happiness evolving through time, our father was really happy if he owned a house with a car on the side, now we want to live in certain suburbs, european cars, overseas holliday once a year, our children go to private schools and the list go on and on ....

            So good luck in seeking happiness or any illusions if they exist at all.

            Date and time
            October 15, 2013, 4:01PM

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