Sudden Wealth Syndrome

We have seen increasing numbers of people with a cluster of issues and symptoms associated with the stress of sudden success or wealth. Many of these people have struck it rich through their entrepreneurial ventures and corporate stock options. Others, as a consequence of inheritance are among the heirs of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in American history.

MMCI coined the term “Sudden Wealth Syndrome” to describe the psychological issues that are associated with new or sudden wealth.  MMCI programs and services address the risks and opportunities of new or sudden wealth.

Why is this a problem? For most of us, winning the lottery or striking it rich would solve all our problems!

Good question.

It’s hard for people to believe that people with money have problems, including the people who have the money. After all, they’ve fulfilled the American Dream, why aren’t they happy? It may seem that we need to dig deep into our emotional pockets to find any empathy for the suddenly successful. That’s the interesting part of S.W.S: if money was an end point, then people wouldn’t have these problems. But in fact the distress or impairment that people experience as a consequence of sudden wealth is in excess of what one would ordinarily expect from exposure to what appears to be a positive source of stress. These are people whose concerns about money become painful ruminations that ruin their daily lives, people whose feelings of confusion and guilt lead to self-destructive behaviors, people whose families are ripped apart and whose lives over time become devastated as a result of SWS. Many begin to develop symptoms, problems that reflect their anxiety, guilt and uncertainty about having and/or inheriting money.

Sudden Wealth Syndrome is a wake up call, and offers a great opportunity.  By taking stock of their resources, people with SWS can assess their time and energy investments and re-balance themselves in the major domains of living: self, relationships, work, and community. This means making choices that align one’s life with your core values.


What are these symptoms, or problems that you call the Sudden Wealth Syndrome?

In our experience people suffering from what we call “Sudden Wealth Syndrome” tend to have at least three (or more) of the following symptoms/issues (in no particular order):

Marked increase in anxiety symptoms or panic attacks–it’s like turning up the volume on your baseline level of anxiety.

Money-related ruminations: recurrent, persistent thoughts, impulses, and images that are experienced as intrusive and inappropriate, causing distress. Here anxiety and uncertainty can take on the proportions of obsessive thinking. As these symptoms worsen, the person’s daily life activities are intruded upon by thoughts or feelings about their money.

“Ticker Shock”: marked cycling of anxiety and depression in response to stock market volatility. For those who work 60-80 hours weekly for little pay in the hope of cashing in on the sale of a company or stock options, stock market volatility, or uncertainty and bad news about their company’s business prospects, can result in increasingly troubling symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Sleep disorders, such as insomnia or early morning awakening;

Irritable mood;

Excessive guilt that inhibits decision-making and undermines pleasure. Guilt about having money. Guilt, and in particular unconscious guilt, may lead to self-defeating behaviors that are ways of punishing oneself for having what one never believed one deserved or was entitled to. We think of this as the “Clinton Syndrome”: when the disparity between one’s life in childhood and one’s adulthood is too great, human psychology seeks to reduce or resolve that disparity. One solution is for people to “shoot themselves in the foot” as a means of making the present more consistent with the past. Human being love consistency and predictability, so we may undermine our achievements if they make us feel guilty, and anxious. It’s as if we say to ourselves, this new person with all this money and success—that’s not me! So we may see people acting impulsively in ways that lead to potentially self-destructive behavior. Feeling guilty or overly self-confident, these folks may act on impulse, over-purchase things, or do things that undermine sound money management. They are not acting as stewards of their wealth.

Identity confusion. Having money is a turning point in life-an opportunity to re-think and re-balance your time and energy investments in yourself, your relationships, work, and community. Some people get stuck in this potentially developmental rite of passage in feelings of confusion and uncertainty as to who they are and what is important to them. These feelings of confusion and uncertainty about oneself and what one values can lead to denial of real choices, that may work in combination with a passive, non-entitled attitude toward one’s money. For a variety of reasons, the person will act as if they are frozen about using their money–they don’t cash in on their stock options, they don’t make changes in their time and energy investments.

Marked fears of loss of control.

Paranoid thinking, such as excessive concerns about being exploited or hurt by others;  If a person does not have clear, guiding values, than one may feel as if the ship of life is veering out of control. Or that other people are out to get you or take advantage of you.

Increase in feelings of depression. Feeling empty, gloomy, not enjoying ordinary pleasurable activities. Having all the things they want does not in itself provide for a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Making life the spending of money on oneself wears thin over time, leaving one feeling disconnected from others and out of touch with oneself.

These symptoms, attitudes, or behaviors usually persist over a noticeable period of time, leading to troubling crises in relation to significant others (intimate relations, work relations). If ignored, sudden wealth syndrome may settle into underlying patterns of psychological inhibition and mood dysphoria.

How do you help people with Sudden Wealth Syndrome?

Our program is twofold: education (print and visual media) and personal counseling. Our approach is comprised of three steps: Recognize, Regain control, Re-balance.

How can my troubles and woes associated with having money be transformed into opportunities to expand my personal and social life?

Sudden Wealth Syndrome marks a turning point in a person’s life.

You can continue to do what you have always done, probably with the same results, or you can re-define what you are doing to make a difference in your own lives and in the larger community. All of this involves identity change–to see oneself as a different person, a person who can accept having money as a resource that can make a difference. It means establishing a legacy about oneself that is more than a sizeable bank account. It means removing psychological obstacles to change. It means re-evaluating your values, dreams, and aspirations in light of your current resources, not the picture you had of yourself before achieving success or wealth.