Political Promise

Affluenza… A Dangerous Epidemic?

In Tomas Christmas on March 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Tomas Christmas introduces ‘affluenza’, the psychological concept of ‘placing a high value on material worth’. 

I first heard of affluenza only very recently. The British psychologist Oliver James defines it as ‘placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame.’ I’ve also seen it defined as ‘an addiction to economic growth.’ Essentially formed by merging the words ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’, affluenza to me means an excessive prioritisation of material wellbeing to the detriment of a person’s happiness. Our nation is particularly consumerist and along with the USA it could be argued that we have particular issues with affluenza. So many people are never satisfied with what they have – the social and economic ladders must be climbed at all costs; people ‘need’ to have a bigger house, they ‘need’ to have a flashy car, they ‘need’ to have the most fashionable and expensive clothes.

Does money make us happy? It certainly can do up to a point. It allows us to afford a home, food and other basic things we need. Many people don’t have the financial security to be certain of these things, and in these cases the pursuit of money is more of a necessity. Striving to secure a home and food is not affluenza. That isn’t what I’m talking about here. I think the problem comes when we have enough, when we’re living comfortably. Then we want more. People aren’t happy until they’ve bought the next thing, climbed the next rung on the ladder. Sadly, there’s always something else to buy. It’s impossible to reach the top of this ladder, you’ll just spend your whole life climbing and you’ll never get what you were looking for. Not from material things. That’s not how humans are designed. Some material things will make us happy, at least in the short run, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s nice to own things that can occasionally bring us enjoyment. But when we start to take it too far, when money and status and material things start to top our list of priorities, that’s when things might start to go downhill. That’s when affluenza strikes. There has been research showing that people living in nations exhibiting this form of ‘selfish capitalism’ (generally the Western English speaking nations) have a far greater tendency to suffer from mental illness as they inflict much emotional distress upon themselves.

A relentless pursuit of money and power will surely cause problems. Money is often the main driving force behind people’s job choices. A job/career that is likely to bring enjoyment and fulfilment but has limited opportunity for promotion and high pay will sometimes be overlooked in favour of a job that is likely to be time consuming and perhaps even boring but boasts a higher pay cheque. Is this the best criteria on which to choose a career? Would people be happier if they were less able to afford luxury if the benefit was a job they truly enjoyed? Once money becomes the main objective it can lead to a slippery slope. Increasing amounts of time and effort are put into a job in search of promotion and a pay rise at the expense of family, friends and hobbies. Pressure intensifies, stress levels rise. In my opinion that’s an unhealthy way to live; yet our society often tells us otherwise. From a young age many of us are inundated with values that align with affluenza; success and independence should be sought at all costs – in a capitalist world we can all make fortunes for ourselves. We are told that school work should always take priority over other things – we have to be as successful as possible. When we look at the news, the economy always seems to be a crucial item. We want growth – we measure our country’s success by how much money we are earning – when the government commissions a happiness survey, we are outraged. Who cares about happiness?! Ok, so practically the survey might face some difficulties – happiness isn’t easy to measure, but the thought behind it is an admirable one. We need more than simply economic indicators to see how ‘well’ our country is doing. In fact GDP is completely insufficient as an indicator of quality of life; it counts so many negative things and omits so many positive things. It has its benefits as an economic indicator but we need to understand its limitations, and stop being so reliant on it as an indicator of how good our country is.

As far as I’m concerned, there are so many things that are more important than being rich and successful. Human relationships and real friendships can make us so much happier than money. And I’m not talking about having thousands of ‘friends’ on facebook. If we spend too much time building up our list of acquaintances, we can find ourselves sacrificing time spent with our close friends. It is so worthwhile to genuinely connect with people, have meaningful conversations; so many of our human interactions remain superficial. Close friendship surpasses any monetary value. Personally, I think it is important not to choose work or school over friends and family. I’m not saying don’t be ambitious. I’m not saying don’t work hard. I am not suggesting that laziness and apathy are qualities to strive for because they are not, I’m simply suggesting that people really think about their priorities and what will make them really fulfilled. It’s important to get the balance right.

The need to have things is likely to lead to a very selfish outlook; I can definitely see a ‘me’ culture forming across the country. Before the announcement of the foreign aid budget recently, there were people calling into BBC news complaining that we were giving any money to foreign countries given the economic state our own country is in. Right, so who cares that children in South America are living in slums? Are we really bothered that over half of the kids in Kenya can’t go to school? Does it upset us that so many people in Africa don’t even have clean water to drink? For a few people the recession and budget cuts will have been genuinely painful; for most of us there may have been sacrifices but in the greater scheme of things life is not that bad. The foreign aid budget should put our problems in perspective and make us grateful for the relative luxury that we live in. I can understand when people raise questions over the long-term developmental benefits of foreign aid – but complaints purely on the basis of British people deserving and needing the money more are absurd. I wouldn’t usually criticise people who hold different political views, but people who get upset about us giving foreign aid make me so angry. Get a grip.

Just to clear a few things up, I’m not suggesting that everyone is money-grabbing and manipulative. It’s possible that I’m overstating the extent of this problem, but it does seem to me that too many people are driven by money and this does often come at the expense of other things. As I said at the beginning of this article, I only recently heard of ‘affluenza’, and I don’t profess to have all the answers; I’m still thinking a lot of things through on this topic, but as I have been doing so, money and materialism have become less and less desirable for me. A few years ago I was probably showing symptoms of affluenza myself. I had flown through my exams, I was doing work experience at a large bank in London and I was given a glimpse of a life that I could one day have. As far as a future of money and materialism went I was pretty well set up. But for some reason I still often felt unhappy and I didn’t really know why. Everything had gone to plan, I was independent and successful, I could chase ‘The American Dream’, but I had overlooked the fact that my priorities were a mess, my relationships were too superficial, and my life lacked meaning. Soon after all of that I re-discovered Christianity and church, and I can honestly say my life has been so much better since then; in large parts because of the sense of community and friendships forged. Now I certainly see the world differently – I’m affluenza free and I’m loving it.

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  1. Good on you for being affluenza-free and I wish people are just like you. Sadly, in this day and age I see material boys and material girls no matter where I go. You want to know what is even worse: girls and ladies my age who think that having branded and designer goods equate higher social standing, looks and happiness (it’s just sad really). Yes, affluenza doesn’t guarantee any lifelong happiness too.

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