The rich are forever being portrayed in books, movies and television as truly miserable when the truth is that, in real life, they seem to be happy all the time.

Or much of the time. Certainly when they need to pay the bills. Or fix the roof. Or plan a trip. Travel for them is an orgy of choice.

You won’t find rich people paying top dollar to squeeze into the middle seats in the middle of “economy” on a long transcontinental flight, with unidentifiable “food” and an unwatchable “movie” placed before them while the “gentleman” in the seat behind them kicks their seat incessantly while singing along, badly, to his iPod.

Not that I’m familiar with the experience.

Reporters love to luxuriate in breathlessly documenting indictments, divorces and comeuppances, to say nothing of cataloguing a rogues’ library of celebrity mug shots. It’s an entire beat carved out by the tabs, daily gossip columns and Vanity Fair: Rich People Messing Up, with subspecialties in Dead Heiresses and Dynastic Gene Mutations.

I’ve interviewed many rich people and they often seem quite content, delirious even. You might be, too, if you knew you never had to do the laundry or go to the grocery store again.

We want to believe that the rich are not better or happier but, contrary to logic, emotionally worse, their woes rivaling those of the poor. We want to believe the wealthy pay for their good fortune through misery, like the Kennedys, when many of them, Maria Shriver for one, seem quite content in addition to having spectacular hair.

Woody Allen’s bracing “Match Point” is one of those rare movies in which the rich are portrayed as joyous, with barely a concern in the world while being in possession of stupefying gardens, excellent scotch, Asprey baubles and superior upholstery.

Emily Mortimer plays Chloe, a beautiful, slim, smart, eternally sunny and kind rich woman, loved by all, with exquisite taste and better skin, whose only blemish is a fondness for Andrew Lloyd Webber – which, to be fair about it, could happen to anyone.

In the past, Allen has mocked such luck and loveliness, stripping away the golden patina to reveal a family or marriage or character in utter crisis despite the excellent real estate.

The truth is, anyone is capable of being unhappy. Luck, as well as the absence of luck, as Match Point stresses, can easily happen to someone born with nothing as well as to someone in possession of it all and then some.

Class warfare, as I’ve observed before, is a simmering stew in this country where everyone is entitled to advance but few actually do. It’s the illusion of being able to quickly attain wealth – the lottery ticket, online poker, some “Antiques Roadshow” junk found in the attic – that thwarts us, because the truth is this never happens. It’s a bait, a lure, shimmering, beguiling and elusive. That’s when the bitterness sets in, as well as an advanced case of schadenfreude, which is German for “Hope the Rich Chick Gets Fat Thighs.”

These are the lies we tell ourselves to feel better about being permanently stuck in a state of being not rich, not being catered to, not feeling special, as well as having to pay full price to feel like sheep on commercial airplanes.

We want to believe that the only people who are happy, true and on the path to righteousness are people who, if not us, are pretty much like us. It’s a way of validating who we are, the way we live, the choices we make. If other people are mired in suffering, even those people who seem to have more, then we must be doing something right.

It’s reductive, though, to think that one group of people, linked by a tax bracket (and sometimes the ability to get out of paying), is uniformly the same, that is, as miserable as anything an eternally envious Fitzgerald could concoct. People need to get over the rich, obsessing as they do about their foibles. After all, they’re probably not concerned about ours.

Karen Heller is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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