Three Ways to Strike It Rich

This post is not a scam, I assure you. You’ll find three (very different) paths to riches outlined below. But to appreciate my advice, I need to depress you a little first.

Start with these data points. About 5 percent of Americans already consider themselves rich, and the top 5 percent of earners in the United States make $232,000 an up a year. Find yourself on the curve (notice, by the way, that if your family brings in more than $66,000 a year, you’re in the top half of the distribution):

While there are poverty guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the government does not officially lay out what it considers “rich” to mean. Given this definitional lacuna, it seems reasonable to adopt a meaning that springs from the way average people understand the term. Drawing on our two bits of data, that means an annual income upwards of $200,000 is the dividing line between the rich and, well, the not-so-rich.

As it happens, though, when you ask people directly what level of annual income is necessary to reach the heights of the rich, they aim higher than this figure. A lot higher. And the more money they make, the more annual income they think is required to qualify as rich. This graphic from the New York Times, based on a study by political scientist Lynn Vavreck, shows how the answers vary:


People under the poverty line say they need a paycheck of $293,000 before they would consider themselves rich, while people we ordinarily think of as “middle class”—families earning between $60,000 and $120,000—think they’ll be rich only after they leave 99 percent of Americans in their dust. How many of those middle-incomers will ever ascend to those heights? And look at Americans earning over $120,000 a year; for them, riches come only once you earn half a million dollars a year.

So here is what is depressing. The average American believes that “rich” is an adjective applying to somewhere between the top 5 percent and the top fraction of 1 percent of earners. That’s not a lot of people. And as they walk farther down the income corridor, seeing their take-home pay rise, the target, the objective, recedes into the distance. For all but the filthy rich, the goal of becoming rich looks pretty unattainable.

This is where we come to the advice section of the post. How, given this tendency toward relentless, fruitless striving, can Americans reach their financial goals? A few ways. I present them increasing order of plausibility.

1. Work really hard, get really lucky, or both, and worm your way into the 1 percent.

People do. You could too. But your chances aren’t great of reaching quite that high on the economic scale. Maybe try something else.

2. Don’t live near or hang out with people who are richer than you are.

The conventional wisdom that it’s better to buy a modest house in a great neighborhood rather than a McMansion in a lousy one might be good real-estate advice, but for most of us, it’s a recipe for resentment and a subjective feeling of being poor. This the sociological concept of “relative deprivation”—the feeling of being deprived, no matter your absolute prosperity level, when comparing your situation with that of your associates.

Karl Marx explains the idea with this example:

A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain, or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilization, if the neighboring palace rises in equal of even in greater measure, the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.

This strategy may well work, but it comes at significant cost. It limits your social acquaintances and possible residences, of course, and relegates you to a relatively narrow life of lording your comparative wealth over others. So unless you live around and socialize with people who are a perfect economic match for you, your friendships may be marred by resentment from the other direction. That’s no good. But we have a third possibility to achieve your dreams.

3. Rethink your values; redefine “rich.”

I don’t mean to get preachy here, but this will sound slightly moralistic. So be it. If you clicked on the link to this post, it’s probably because you want to strike it rich. If you’ve read this far into the post, you see how long the odds are against that goal, how the pursuit is like an itch that can seldom be scratched, and how an obsession with your wealth vis-a-vis your neighbors and friends will, more often than not, depress you.

Time for a tiny dose of ancient teaching. A Jewish collection of wisdom known as Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot) contains this nugget from Ben Zoma:

"Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot."

For the truly impoverished who have neither shelter nor food, satisfaction with one’s lot would be possible only while under a serious delusion. But for the rest of us who are secure in our homes and do not go to bed hungry, who live in countries with basic rights and decent governments, it’s not bad advice. This is not a call for complacency or shiftlessness. It is not a plea to give up on yourself or abandon plans for enriching your life. Rather, it's an observation that whoever you are and however much you have, happiness comes from satisfaction with that bundle of goods, at that moment in time. Appreciating what you have rather than forever longing for more may be the least flawed recipe on offer for living a rich life.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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