Shedding Our Riches

First, a quick overview of Michael Gates Gill’s How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else: The author was raised in a lifestyle of ease and comfort – on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with a summer cottage in Connecticut -- and doesn’t realize until he's in his sixties that a simple life is the ticket to lasting contentment. At 55, Gill loses his job as an executive, gets a divorce, and exhausts his savings – and finds himself taking a job at Starbuck’s. Simply put, he transitions from living a life of wealth and entitlement to a life of service – and discovers true happiness. While his story is a sad one (though ultimately uplifting), the message is important: It took the author a lifetime to shed his riches -- only to end up richer than ever. His book is a fascinating study of human nature.

The parallel between Gates’ story and today’s economic environment is palpable. Americans are shedding their riches in ways they never imagined. Like Michael Gill, today’s generation has been forced to cut back, or simply cut out altogether. Like Gill, their previous lives have been taken away from them and they’ve had to create new ways to live. Before he "became like everyone else," Gill candidly identifies his former sense of entitlement. This mentality was a direct result of always having had his needs met and never wanting for anything. Sounds like a typical environment for upper class society – yet eerily familiar to today’s middle class. While most of the modern generation hasn’t bumped elbows with the likes of Jackie Kennedy or Ernest Hemingway, as Gill did, they’ve certainly lived a life of privilege. In fact there’s a new book out -- The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D. -- that identifies the pervasiveness of this issue. “When children of prosperity get whatever they want, they learn that the world revolves around them. This theory also suggests that people raised in hard economic times should be less narcissistic – duty-oriented, good savers, unconcerned with seeking fame. And indeed they are – this is a spot-on description of the Greatest Generation.”

Had Gill (or the modern generation) been born in less than ideal circumstances, if he had wanted for more and been given less, he would not have spent an entire lifetime searching for life’s meaning. It would not have taken scrubbing toilets and serving coffee to appreciate the value of hard work and sacrifice. Not that Gill minds. Despite his resurrected riches -- his book is set to become a movie in 2012 – the author still works at Starbuck’s simply because he enjoys it so much. Because he’s found a purpose.

Happiness and purpose (consider the wildly popular The Purpose-Driven Life) is a topic that’s become all too familiar to Americans. Research has proven that despite the modern generation’s relative riches and easy lifestyle, young people are unhappier than ever. To the outside observer, Michael Gill’s (or the modern generation’s) upbringing – a top-notch education, unlimited resources -- seems advantageous. But affluence can be a liability. For it wasn’t until Gill stepped out of his comfort zone, until he was stripped of the good life, that he ultimately “saved his life.” This is a lesson the modern generation could stand to learn. “Helping others has benefits for the self as well – not only in becoming less narcissistic, but also in becoming happier. Research consistently finds that people who focus on status and materialism are more likely to be depressed, and those who focus on close relationships are happier,” writes Twenge and Campbell.

Americans have been living a life of entitlement for too long. What we saw as unbounded opportunity became out-and-out greed. We all know people who’ve had to completely readjust their lifestyle in light of our new economy, and it’s been painful to watch. But it’s also been a Godsend. Americans are learning early on what it took Michael Gill a lifetime to discover: a simple life, without all the bells and whistles, is the best life.

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