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How billionaires navigate boredom through thrilling experiences like Titanic sub, according to psychologists

‘Travel, in particular, is one of the more accessible ways to get those thrills,’ psychologist says about billionaires who seek luxurious expeditions

Amber Raiken
New York
Wednesday 28 June 2023 11:18 BST
Related: Titan sub shouldn’t have been operating says ‘Titanic’ director

Even before the loss of the five passengers aboard the Titanic sub, psychologists have studied the rise in wealthy individuals embarking on extravagant yet dangerous adventures, and the reasons why these avid travellers are so intrigued by the thrilling experiences.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Scott Lyons, a psychologist based in New York, explained how travelling can be used as a method of masking one’s negative feelings, such as boredom or sadness, with something exciting and adventurous. But, according to Dr Lyons, when it comes to billionaires in particular, the trips required to distract from the tedium are often more frequent and extravagant.

“They’ve reached certain pinnacles in their professional life or social life where they kind of need more to feel more. To get that excitement or to ultimately feel alive,” he explained. “Travel, in particular, is one of the more accessible ways to get those thrills. Doing something that’s a ‘risky business’ adventure takes a lot more planning in some ways than going to say: ‘Oh we’re going to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.’”

Aside from submarine travel, there has been an ongoing appeal with extreme adventures, as three billionaires have followed one another into space. In July 2021, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos successfully launched himself into space in a rocket made by his own company, Blue Origins. Earlier this month, it was also announced that Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, will attempt to launch its Mars-bound Starship rocket, two months after the spaceship ended in a dramatic explosion minutes after lift-off. Business magnate and commercial astronaut Richard Branson also announced that his company, Virgin Galactic, will launch its first commercial space tourism flights before the end of June.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in Colorado, echoed Dr Lyons’ statement about why billionaires travel, as he said those who’ve accumulated significant wealth can feel isolated in certain spaces. More specifically, he suggested that, for billionaires, who are “apart from the bulk of humanity,” it is not easy to form deep connections with themselves or others.

“They struggle with feeling connected to themselves, finding intimate interpersonal relationships and being seen as anything other than a cash machine, on earth to financially and emotionally support the endless needs of others,” he said.

Dr Lyons, the author of Addicted to Drama, also noted that unusual opportunities, such as a trip to the Titanic wreck, can bring a circle of wealthy, like-minded individuals together to bond. For those who booked a trip aboard the Titan sub, it meant a new opportunity to ward off potential boredom, as well as the opportunity to join an extremely exclusive group of individuals.

The search for the missing Titan submersible came to an end on Thursday 22 June, when the US Coast Guard confirmed that the five people aboard the tourist sub had died. On Sunday 18 June, OceanGate’s Titan submersible left its support vessel to travel to the Titanic wreckage, which sits at a depth of 12,500ft. Days later, officials determined that the Titan submersible experienced a “catastrophic implosion” when it submerged, killing all five people aboard the vessel.

In 2021, OceanGate Expeditions, which was founded by former investment banker Stockton Rush, launched its first tour of the wreckage with a five-person vessel. The company typically charged guests $250,000 to see the Titanic site.

The implosion of the Titan sub resulted in the death of five people, including Rush. British Billionaire Hamish Harding, an avid pilot, skydiver and chairman of private plane firm, Action Aviation, was also aboard the sub, as was British-Pakistani tycoon, Shahzada Dawood, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman. Shahzada was a business advisor who served on the board of the Prince’s Trust International, and a descendant of the one of the richest families in Pakistan. Paul-Henri Nargeolet, the fifth traveller aboard the sub, was a French diver, navy veteran, and director of underwater research at RMS Titanic, the company that owns the rights to the Titanic wreck and recovers artifacts.

“There’s a specialness behind doing something that’s really unique. While there are bragging rights, it’s more than just that,” Dr Lyons explained. “Within their friend group they’re sharing it. It’s something to talk about that’s really unique, and that’s exciting. But it’s also about what it elicits: That momentary thrill and aliveness.”

The submersible lost contact with the tour operator an hour and 45 minutes into the two-hour descent to the wreckage (OceanGate Expeditions/PA)
The submersible lost contact with the tour operator an hour and 45 minutes into the two-hour descent to the wreckage (OceanGate Expeditions/PA) (PA Media)

As Dr Hokemeyer acknowledged the ongoing fascination appeal of the Titanic wreckage, he pointed out how this interest ties into the thrills of travelling. According to Dr Hokemeyer, the wealthy who sought a trip aboard the Titan sub may have also been “consciously and unconsciously” hoping to prove their invincibility.

“Whilst the Titanic was a ship with several classes on board, it is the upper class’s demise that still holds our gaze,” he said. “For the group of billionaires who perished chasing the original storyline, it was very possible that both consciously and unconsciously they were seeking to show themselves and the world that they were above the risks and demise that befell the original voyage.”

Since its inception, multiple concerns about OceanGate have been raised. In 2018, leaders in the submarine industry from the Marine Technology Society wrote a letter to warn of “catastrophic” issues with the OceanGate sub development. The letter was signed by three dozen signatories, including executives, oceanographers, and explorers.

“While this may demand additional time and expense, it is our unanimous view that this validation process by a third party is a critical component in the safeguards that protect all submersible occupants,” the signers wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times.

In a blog post shared in 2019, the company defended its decision not to have its sub “classed” by an outside evaluator, stating that “focusing on classing the vessel does not address the operational risks”. Before the search for the sub and its passengers came to a conclusion, The Simpsons writer Mike Reiss reflected on the experience he had with the tourist expedition last year, with Reiss revealing that he’d had to sign “a waiver that mentions death three times on page one” before getting on the vessel.

Dr Hokemeyer compared the risks of extreme expeditions, like the Titan, to narcissistic personality disorders. According to the psychologist, both have the ability to cause damage to oneself and those around them. “In the same way that people who suffer from narcissism get short-term thrills from feeling special and above their mortality and the law, these extreme and highly dangerous trips run the risk of causing destruction and death,” he said.

Dr Hokemeyer isn’t the first expert to study the link between narcissism and risk tasking. A 2018 study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, saw psychology professor Ziyan Yang and his team administer a series of narcissist and non-narcissist statements to 229 Zhejiang University undergraduate students, who then had to decide which statements described them better. The study found that there was “not only an association between narcissism and risky decision-making under high-risk circumstances, but also a potential mechanism underlying this association”.

While speaking to The Independent, Dr Lyons also noted that wealthy individuals he’s studied and worked with typically have not feared the risks associated with high-risk expeditions. According to Dr Lyons, this absence of fear may be a trait that links billionaires.

“It’s not like it carries over fully, but if they're more risk-adverse as a global kind of trait, typically they wouldn't be in the position they are,” he said. “Let’s say billionaires make early investments in Apple or major tech companies. That openness towards risk is going to be applied into other areas of life.”

According to Dr Lyons, there’s also another factor to consider when examining the high-risk interests of billionaires - the likelihood that they will be photographed. “They’re being watched because of the extravagance of it,” he said. “The exposure also suggests it’s only billionaires doing this, but we’re all thrill seeking in some ways. They’re just doing it on a level that is so extravagant and so extreme because of the accessibility they have to it with the money they have, and the media coverage.”

He continued: “And that exposure in the media makes other people of that sort of wealth circle go: ‘Oh my gosh, I want that. And I can have, and I could get it.’”

Aside from the thrilling risks, and the wealth needed to make these trips possible, Dr Lyons said billionaires may seek these once-in-a-lifetime experiences simply because they make them happy.

“Travel experiences lead to longer term mental health and happiness, rather than simply the accumulation of wealth itself,” he said. “Creating memories through travelling expands our sense of culture and the world. There’s something really significant about it towards our mental health. These are not the typical memories they’re trying to make, so this is an outlier too.”

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