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Easy Street

Reporter’s Notebook: Why Wall Streeters Retire Unhappy

Heidi Moore Jun 30, 2011

Gillian Tett interviews Robert Hormats on the challenges of globalization at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week.

ASPEN, Colo.–Here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, you can hardly throw a brightly colored polo shirt without hitting someone who works – or has worked – on Wall Street. Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is here, as is Robert K. Steel and and any number of money-managers.

A lot of the Wall Street men are here, as always, to pitch: to pitch their clients, to pitch ideas, and to build relationships. It seems to be a chummy, friendly kind of arrangement, and oxytocin – the hormone of personal connection – seems to be flying through the Aspen air as thick as the plentious pollen.

But are those relationships purely and coldly economic? Marty Seligman, a prominent psychologist who studies happiness, well-being and resilience, says that business relationships are no substitute for personal relationships – a phenomenon that many affluent Wall Streeters often discover too late.

Seligman – who I mentioned previously in this report from Aspen – has a big idea now that he’s discussing with several governments, including that of the U.K.: measuring well-being through a construct he calls PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.

We can probably all agree with that – in theory. But in practice, sometimes we’re building relationships that aren’t really true relationships – that is, they help us make contact but don’t provide the kind of enduring support that leads to happiness. I met up with Seligman on the verdant Aspen Institute campus to ask him what he’s seen from people on Wall Street. This is what he said:

Seligman: I’ve had a number of experiences in which I’ve met very rich people – Goldman Sachs senior partners, hedge fund managers – who came to me because they said they had made a huge amount of money but were miserable — in retirement, typically — and what was my advice? I think it had to do with a lot of achievement and a lot of material objects, but an absence of good relationships, an absence of meaning and an absence of engagement in what they do.

So in general, when I advise rich people about retirement, I talk about PERMA. That they’ve got the P, they’ve got the achievement, but what they don’t have a lot of typically is relationships, engagement and meaning — and their retirement should be built around those things and not around material objects.

Heidi Moore: That’s ironic, because one of the things that, say, investment bankers really pride themselves on is being “trusted advisers” and building close relationships to advise CEOs.

Seligman: Yeah, but they’re typically building the economics of their clients. If we redefine prosperity to not just be about wealth, but about PERMA, then what a good economic adviser would do would be to advise people on how to build PERMA in their lives, how to spend their money, not just about material things, but about how to have better relationships, more meaning, and more engagement.

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