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My Drug of Choice Is "More": Getting Real About Wealth Addiction

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The Occupy Wall Street and the 99 Percent Movement named the core issue of our time: the overwhelming power of Wall Street and large corporations. Now it's time we named the problem underlying this issue. It's called addiction. I've been treating addicts for more than 40 years and when I hear the descriptions of those for whom millions and billions of dollars in wealth drives them to want more and more, I know we're dealing with addiction.

Philip Slater has an A.B. and Ph.D. from Harvard and taught sociology at Harvard, Brandeis and UCSC. He is the author of numerous books including Wealth Addiction. He says:

"Those who devote their entire lives to amassing or retaining huge sums of money are neurotically addicted, trying to fill an inner void with money. And since such psychic voids cannot be filled with money -- any more than with alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, food, or sex -- even a billion dollars doesn't satisfy them."

We say people who can't stop drinking when they've had enough are alcoholics. We say people who can't stop eating when they've had enough are food addicts. We say that people who can't stop gambling when they know they should quit are gambling addicts. "But people with a billion dollars who can't stop trying to make more," Slater says, "we call successful."

In order to have a better understand of wealth addiction, we have to look more closely at the nature of all addictions. In working with addictions for many years I have found there are three indicators of addictions:

1. Compulsion:

Although many addicts are fine people, when they are hooked on their "drug of choice," they become compulsive. They are driven, always scanning their surroundings for their next "fix." Whether they are addicted to alcohol, cocaine, gambling, food or money, they are never comfortable and easy. They operate in "must-have" mode.

2. Loss of Control:

All addicts set limits on their behavior. "This is my last drink," one may say. Another may swear off eating chocolate. Someone else may say they're only going to smoke marijuana on weekends. Every addict finds they can't consistently control how much or how often they use. It may work for a time, but the boundaries are always breached and their use increases.

3. Continued Use Despite Consequences:

This is the core indicator of an addiction. Most of us overdo our drinking, drugs or other behavior. But when we have to pay the consequences, we change our behavior. Addicts can't do that. Even when they find they are harming themselves and harming those they care about, they aren't able to stop. They will lie, cheat and steal. They know they should stop, but until they get help and get in recovery, the destructive behavior continues.

I was surprised when one of the addicts I had been treating told me, "my drug of choice is... more." I asked him what he meant.

"I've used all kinds of drugs in my life and gotten addicted to every pleasurable activity imaginable," he said. "But the truth is that whatever the substance or behavior, I want more. Too much is never enough for me."

No addict wants to stop using. They only stop when they have to, when they have reached bottom. Wealth addicts are no different. Those who went on a binge that nearly caused a collapse in the world economy are back at it. They are making more money, getting big bonuses, and looking for the next big score. But every addict reaches a point where they must go into recovery or die. We are reaching that point.

In 2010, 34 U.S. billionaires pledged to give away at least 50 percent of their wealth to charity as part of a campaign by investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The campaign continues and more and more people of wealth are recognizing their connection with the rest of humanity and are putting their money where it can do the most good. You can see who has made the commitment at www.givingpledge.org. The names go from A to Z: Paul G. Allen to Mark Zuckerberg.

Of course you don't have to be a billionaire to make a commitment to stop chasing the dollar. Many people in the world don't have enough and could use a little more. But many have more than they need and are ready to say "enough is enough."