Affluenza: The Sickness You Don’t Know You Have

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I just finished reading “Affluenza” by Oliver James, a book which very much resonated with me. In it, James theorises that most people in developed countries are suffering from an infection called the “affluenza virus”.

By this, he means that we’re all excessively preoccupied by money and the pursuit thereof. He places the blame on “selfish capitalism”, or systems which seek to increase economic growth whatever the human cost.

The outcome of this is rapidly increasing rates of mental illness – or “emotional distress”, as James calls it. He argues that anxiety, depression, insecurity and so on are just natural responses to the society we live in – it’s society which is sick, not us.

According to James, people with the affluenza virus are never satisfied with what they have, always pursuing more – a nicer house, a higher-paying job or a more attractive partner. He suggests that this happens because we’re fooled into thinking these things will make us happier, but when we get them the satisfaction feels hollow. For this reason, we keep moving onto the next goal, which again fails to bring us true happiness. Becoming desperate, we often attempt to fill this emptiness with other things, such as alcohol, drugs, shopping, or working excessively long hours.

Wants Or Needs?

Advertising plays a major role in this system, convincing us we need ever more possessions if we are to be happy, popular and successful. The great success of selfish capitalism has been to convince us that wants are actually needs.

James uses mortgages as a prime example of this mentality. Owning a nice home in a good location has effectively become a status symbol. Many people now take out huge mortgages which are far beyond their means to achieve this goal. Most of these people could easily have managed with a smaller and less opulent home. The large home is a want, not a need.

Incidentally, large mortgages are an effective way of locking people into this system, because they often force us to continue working long hours in order to pay them off. And we rarely stop with the mortgage – we have to have the expensive car, the plasma TV, and the trip to Barbados too.

The Devaluation of Unpaid Work

James is immensely critical of the way unpaid work like caring for a child or relative is undervalued in our society. He points out the madness of a system where both parents often need to work full time to make enough to get by, meaning they don’t have time to care for their own children. He cites evidence that putting children in day care at such young ages can cause serious emotional problems later in life.

Even in families which can afford for one parent to stay home, the social stigma for that parent can be huge. In addition, many people have internalised the mindset that only paid work is valuable. They feel guilty about not contributing financially to the household, despite the fact that they’re doing a hugely demanding job. James suggests that stay-at-home parents of under-threes should be paid the national average wage to combat this.

Culture and Affluenza

In the book, James interviews various people from several countries to gauge how culture influences affluenza. His interviews show just how widespread these problems are, despite cultural differences. They also show the extreme prevalence of emotional distress amongst those who feel trapped in the system.

A ray of hope is Denmark, which has structured its systems to maximise wellbeing rather than profit. The Danish education system is designed to create good citizens rather than people who excel at exams. Men and women are expected to contribute equally to chores and childcare. Interestingly, this makes people less materialistic. Women don’t care if a man has a flashy car, they’re just looking for someone who’ll do his bit around the house. Despite all this, Denmark has one of the strongest economies in the world.

What Are The Solutions?

James proposes several political policies which would help to rectify our affluenza. These are very much needed, but in the meantime perhaps we ought to be looking for more personal solutions.

It’s said that true happiness comes from within. I’m a firm believer that dissatisfaction and poor mental health are often the result of looking outside ourselves for happiness. Of course, we do need enough money to meet our basic needs. Beyond that, the evidence strongly suggests that having more won’t make us any happier.

As someone who has chosen to live unconventionally, I’ve seen firsthand how affluenza permeates our society. I’m constantly asked when I’m going to get a job, and people sometimes pityingly ask me what I do all day. They seem to think I just sit in my room wasting time on the Internet, unable to fathom what I’d do without a ‘real’ job. In reality, I read, write, work on my blog, do research, go for long walks, take part in activism, practise yoga, meditate, cook, play guitar and of course do chores. My goal is to grow as a person rather than grow the profits of a corporation.

I believe we need to stay in touch with our spiritual sides to be content with what we have. For me, that means meditation, which I’ve found to be a very powerful tool. For others, it may be something different.

Will Self has said that James’ book “should be mandatory reading for everyone”, and I’m inclined to agree. You can find it here if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think affluenza is a problem in our society? How do you think we could combat it?

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15 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Excellent article! I agree one hundred percent. Particularly concerning women staying at home to care for their children being regarded disparagingly as indeed is all unpaid work. I so agree people seek happiness through materialism, the constant desire for such is never satisfied and they ‘re left empty inside as though something is missing. People work long hours to pay for homes they do not have the time to enjoy. Greed is the order of the day along with the desire for power and status, and success is measured by how much money you have and your position in society. People are made ashamed to be poor yet it is the greed of the few that makes this so.

  2. I’m a proponent of universal basic income for precisely these reasons, and more specifically because of the benefits for stay-at-home parents. Oh, and I’m from Barbados as well, so thanks for throwing that in there to make us look a bit more swanky 😉

  3. When out at shopping malls/centres I find myself going into serious mental downward spirals. It is just so much STUFF (being pretty products) and I want the pretty stuff, but at the same time I don’t need to pretty stuff, but society says I should want pretty stuff. Plus they set up the displays and advertisements to want the stuff.
    And I walk away from shops in tears, more often than not.

    1. I find that thinking about the environmental damage caused by the products, or the underpaid workers who manufactured them, helps me to resist buying things I don’t need. But advertising is a very powerful thing. Thanks very much for reading!

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