Compared to what?

Are today’s 50 richest billionaires happier than the 50 richest people who lived twenty years ago?

It’s unlikely.

And yet they control many times as much wealth.

If you take a date to the fanciest, most exclusive restaurant in Portland, you may find the satisfaction that comes from having done something exclusive. On the other hand, if you were at that very same restaurant in Los Angeles, it might feel like a disappointing compromise. Same food, different status.

A 440-foot yacht isn’t better than a 200-foot yacht, unless we’re measuring ‘better’ in terms of status. And of course, once someone has a 445-foot yacht, then the 440-foot model is a lot less attractive, isn’t it?

And that’s why status-seekers need limits.

The Citation X can fly at 711 miles an hour. And no matter how much you spend, you can’t buy a jet that will go 800 miles an hour. Because the laws of physics (combined with the laws on sonic booms) make it impossible with our current technology. As a result, the owner of a Citation X can find the satisfaction that he has reached the limit.

There are two dangers of measuring happiness along just one axis. The first is that you will be easily disappointed, because the unbalanced approach to maximizing a single variable increases the chance that you will end up behind.

And the second is that you might actually succeed in hitting a limit. And then where will you find your happiness?

We (everyone around us) come out ahead when we create positive externalities for people who are competing to win. When folks are seeking to compete on who can build the most libraries, endow the most scholarships, and yes, pay the most taxes, it leads to a positive cycle of better. And we challenge our sports heroes to beat each other senseless as a form of entertainment. But only within the rules.

Life without limits rarely leads to satisfaction. And billionaires who pay taxes aren’t less driven or less happy than billionaires who don’t.

For them, for all single-axis competitors, it’s the game, the hierarchy, the rankings that matter. In fact, that’s true for just about everyone who cares about status. Boundaries are what allow games of status to exist.