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Success, drugs and Hans K Rausing

July 19, 2012


Yesterday Hans K Rausing was charged with delaying the burial of his wife who was found dead in the bedroom of their London house last week. The tragic story of Hans Kristian Rausing and his wife Evaprobably  tells us more about the devastation that drug addiction causes than about wealth, meaning and parenting, but nevertheless it is hard to ignore such issues which have been much discussed in the press.

The fact is that it can be very tough to have very successful parents and Hans K Rausing’s difficulty in finding a role for himself in life may have been a factor in his developing an addiction to drugs. The fact that he met his wife Eva in a drug rehabilitation clinic made overcoming addiction many orders of magnitude more difficult for him and her. The craving for drugs such as cocaine and heroin is triggered by cues associated with taking it in the past and an addicted spouse constitutes a walking, talking bundle of cues that is impossible to avoid.

According to Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian, Hans K was intimidated by his six foot eight inch, enormously successful namesake of a father.  Children of highly successful parents often have difficulty in finding their own way in the world, particularly if they do not have to work for their money – the challenge of making a living is a powerful source of meaning for all of us.

This is in part because mastering a challenge and achieving a success through one’s own efforts causes a surge in dopamine in the brain’s reward system, giving a ‘feel good’ sensation that is at the core of motivation and meaning in life. This, however, is precisely the same system through which drugs such as cocaine, heroin and amphetamines have their effects. Individuals who feel diminished and out of control are therefore more vulnerable to the ‘quick fix’ of the dopamine-enhancing drug than are those who feel a sense of purpose, control and meaning in their lives: baboons who are low down in a status hierarchy will avail of cocaine much more readily than those at the top of the hierarchy.

Billionaires such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates have foreseen such dangers and the potentially de-motivating curse that a huge inheritance can bring to a child.  He has said that he will give his children some money but not a meaningful percentage of his fortune.[i] Gates and his wife have committed to giving away the majority of their wealth to good causes and have persuaded a number of other billionaires, including Warren Buffett and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to do the same.[ii]

But powerful, successful fathers – males more often than females – can often make it very hard for their sons to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and the resulting sense of powerlessness can make them vulnerable to all sorts of difficulties, including addiction, I show in my book The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain (Bloomsbury, June 2012).

Pablo Picasso’s son Paulo – the doleful ‘Paul as Harlequin’ so often painted by his father as a young boy – for instance had severe alcohol problems and never escaped from a father who referred to himself as ‘El Rey’ – the King – and allowed his staff to refer to him as ‘the Sun’.

The oil billionaire J Paul Getty believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Roman emperor Hadrian, and unsurprisingly his son Paul Getty Jr turned to heroin and lived the sort of feckless existence of Paulo Picasso.

Great wealth, through the power it gives, changes the brain as much as any drug and one of its effects in extreme cases is to induce the narcissistic delusion of being ‘special’, even in some way deified – J Paul Getty and Pablo Picasso were examples of this. But even less extreme cases of parental success can lead to a less dramatic form of the same process, leading to a child of these parents feeling lost and lacking self-belief.

According to clinical psychologist Fiona O’Doherty, such parents may, often unconsciously, ‘hide the ladder’ of the hard work, persistence through failure and sheer chance underlying their own success from their children[iii]. This can be psychologically defeating for those who see their parent’s success as ‘god-given’. And once you start to believe that your achievements are ‘things’ that you either have or don’t have, rather than something you can work at with persistence, application and a sprinkling of luck, then small failures can become evidence of personal failure rather than simple setbacks.

If we are to believe the stories about Hans K’s relationship with his very successful father, then this may have played a part in the Rausing family’s tragic events. On the other hand, drug addiction so corrodes a person’s personality and purpose that maybe we should look no further than this malign cause of tragedy, repeated a million times over every year throughout the world.

[i] Sunday Times, 2nd July 2006

[iii] Ian Robertson, The Winner Effect: How Power Changes Your Brain. London:  Bloomsbury, June 2012. 

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