The Highest Forms of Wealth

Wealth is easy to measure but hard to value.

When George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore – the largest home in America at 178,000 square feet – one newspaper in 1899 wondered what the point was.

The goals of the country’s richest during the Gilded Age, it said, seemed to be “devoting themselves to pleasure regardless of expense.” But often they got the reverse: “Devotion to expense regardless of pleasure.”

George didn’t spend much time in the 250-room mansion which, by the time he died, had nearly bankrupted him.

Twenty years before Biltmore was constructed, the New York Daily Tribune wrote that “The Vanderbilt money is certainly bringing no happiness to its present claimants.”

That wasn’t closet jealousy. Armed with the world’s greatest fortune, the Vanderbilt family seemed committed to proving the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness. They took it a step further, showing that when managed poorly money could in fact buy resentment, insecurity, and social anxiety. It could buy it in bulk.

Money buys happiness in the same way drugs bring pleasure: Incredible if done right, dangerous if used to mask a weakness, and disastrous when no amount is enough.

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