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Affluenza: The Psychology of Wealth

Is it true that the pursuit and acquisition of wealth leads to unhappiness?

It is not entirely clear who invented the term "Affluenza." A documentary with that title appeared on American television and the makers then wrote a book with the title. John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor then wrote a book in 2001 with the subtitle: The All-Consuming Epidemic. It covers the symptoms, causes and treatment of Affluenza.

They defined affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” They ended the book with an ironic observation that affluenza is the one disease we can cause by spending less money not more

In his book Affluenza Oliver James, a British clinical psychologist proposed the following theory: Increasing affluence in a society, particularly where it is characterised by inequality leads to an increase in unhappiness.

The thesis is modern capitalism makes money out of misery. It encourages materialism but leaves a psychic void. The increasing emotional stress of people in the West is a response to the sick, unequal, and acquisitive societies. Just as "dieting makes you fat" so "retail therapy makes you sad." Affluenza is a "rich persons disease;" a corruption of the American dream.

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Affluenza comes from affluence plus influenza: money makes you sick; capitalism and consumerism are recipes for illness. It is a painful, socially transmitted, and highly paradoxical "disease" that is the result of a false promise. The assertion is that wealth and economic success leads to fulfilment, whereas in effect it leads to an addiction to wealth accumulation and the neglect of personal relationships which are the real source of happiness.

Affluenza is an unsustainable and seriously unhealthy addiction to personal (and societal) economic growth. It is most acute in those who inherit wealth and seem to have no purpose, direction or superego.

The Affluenza thesis suggests that people overshop to feel better about themselves or more secure. It may be a distraction temporarily helping them avoid other important issues. It can be a weapon to express anger or seek revenge. It may also be a vain attempt to hold on to the love of another. It may be a balm used to soothe yourself or repair your mood. It may also be an attempt to project an image of wealth and power.

Affluenza may also be a way of trying to fit into an appearance-obsessed society. Equally it may be a response to loss, trauma or stress. It could be the less evil such as being addicted to alcohol, drugs or food. It could also be a way of trying to feel more in control or finding meaning in life.

The data for the book Affluenza came from interviews. The conclusion is that placing a high value on appearance, fame, money and possessions, leads to emotional distress. It leads to over-consumption, “luxury fever,” alienation and inappropriate self-medication using alcohol, drugs and shopping to attempt to bring meaning and satisfaction. James seems to blame many of the problems of modern societies–anxiety, depression, eating disorders, emotional distress, family breakdown, and medication on Affluenza. The emptiness and loneliness many people feel is because they have "traded off" authentic, genuine and intimate relationships for wealth accumulation and consumption.

The vaccine for the virus is a change in lifestyle, but also a change in society. Thus he attacks advertising which is, in his view, mendacious, misleading and always hyperbolic. He believes women’s magazines are the "Devils work." He approves of societies that try to hold affluenza at bay by laws and taxes that increase equality.

The thesis is not new. There are hundreds of religious texts and sermons condemning conspicuous consumption and advocating, what we now call "down shifting." Many have argued that materialism leads to a commodification of ourselves and often deprives us of what we most need. The thesis has also been proposed by political thinkers, particularly of the left who have made many attacks on "selfish capitalism;" Liberal Market-Forces Ideology and the Free Market.

Criticisms of the Affluenza thesis have been harsh and many. The book has been accused of being little more than sermonising, sensationalist journalism,ranting nonsense. A fact-heavy book with a height-weight message. Some reviewers accused the author of being neither familiar with the research that could both back-up and challenge his position, but also be more dispassionate, disinterested and even-handed. He is overly strident about some issues like child-rearing. Worse, he makes a number of propositions for a saner and happier society without sufficient evidence that they would indeed work.

It seems all the modern evils are due to affluenza–from a false sense of entitlement to an inability to delay gratification or tolerate frustration; and from work-aholism to a destruction of the environment. Some have seen the book as little more than a collection of anecdotes about poor little rich boys.

There is also the question about causation: Does social and economic inequality cause emotional distress or the other way around? Inequality itself is evil: but this single factor should be used to explain everything. Other explanations could also be put forwards such as the rise of secular liberalism as opposed to religious faith or moral and intellectual relativism.

Some attacked the inconsistencies in James’ political agenda apart from follow the Scandinavian system. How much state intervention do we need and how much legislation to ensure people have more balanced expectations and employ money in more appropriate ways.

Many accused him of a selected and simplistic reading of his own data. He cherry picks both his statistics and his case studies.

However the thesis of the book has caused enough interest for schools to introduce an Affluenza Discussion Guide with the following sort of questions:

  • Shopping Fever: How often do you shop? Is it recreation for you? Do you bring a list of what you need and follow it or do you shop by impulse?
  • A Rash of Bankruptcies: Have you ever been seriously in debt? What did you do about it? Do you know people who are deep in debt?
  • Swollen Expectations: How do you think new technologies are affecting your life? Do you feel you need to keep up with faster computers and other technologies? Why or why not?
  • Chronic Congestion: Choose a product that you use regularly, and do a “life-cycle analysis” of it–that is, research where it comes from, what it is made of, how long you will use it, and where it will end up.

An important and related issue is the concern with Poor Rich Kids: children from very well-off families who are psychologically deprived. There is no shortage of books written by therapists on the psychology of affluence and the problems it brings.

Jessie O’Neill, a psychotherapist, in her book The Golden Ghetto notes that the “monied class” often find themselves in a “golden ghetto” where this select group are separated from the majority. Children in the golden ghetto get isolated and marginalised from most people in society. They can feel discriminated against by envious others with whom they feel uncomfortable. She describes the idea that affluence is synonymous with happiness as a “persistent and pernicious cultural myth” (p. 50).

O’Neill believes that the psychological dysfunctions of affluence are: absentee, workaholic parents, and distrust of others–and these can easily get passed on. Equally sudden wealth (acquired through inheritance, lottery wins) can create a false sense of entitlement, a loss of motivation and increasing intolerance of frustration. Inheriting money can damage self-esteem, worth and confidence because they are not sure if they could have made it on their own or whether people treat them differently because of their money. They never know "Did I succeed?" or "Did my money buy success?" and "Do they love me because of who I am?" or "because I am rich,” “Is he merely a gigolo after my money?” or “Is this true love?” Indeed society is often highly ambivalent towards the wealthy–exhibiting “wealthism”, and hence the idle rich. There is also abundant evidence of anger, envy and resentment to the rich.

She argues that family wealth founders have a “never enough” mentality that can reflect addictive or compulsive elements. It is also often driven by a narcissistic need to be special.

Poor little rich kids–once made popular by the cartoon Richy Rich–often report "empty childhoods" with missing parents, a sense of lack of love and low self-esteem. Their special privileges can lead to social and emotional isolation from others of their own age and hence difficulty interacting with them. This can lead to shame. More interaction with surrogate caretakers (tutors, nannies) means they often have problems with personal identity. They cannot identify with their parents or pick up their values and beliefs. They experience a sense of emotional abandonment or worse, emotional incest where the parent gratifies their unmet needs for emotional intimacy at the expense of the child’s needs and emotional security.

Hence isolated and confused children are easily prone to anxiety and depression because of the void many felt being deprived of parental attention, care and love. Also, according to O’Neill (1999) because affluent children have so little “healthy frustration” and setbacks as well as having most experiential and material desires fulfilled they develop unrealistic expectations as well as a lack of personal accountability. This can lead to the "perennial child" syndrome. As a consequence they seem very poor at forming, maintaining and thriving in intimate relationships.

Financial disparity can lead to many relationship issues. The most well known and acceptable is rich men having trophy wives. It is more problematic for a woman who has great wealth. O’Neill argues that rich children feel guilt but particularly shame when they realise how many poor people there are. Their coping strategies are either to donate large sums to charity or “shut out” poor people from their lives who remind them of their wealth. Rich people do not understand the cause of their discontent and disconnect because of the myths surrounding money. Hence they project or displace their feelings of anger, resentment and fear onto others, so jeopardizing having healthy relationships which reduces that shame “strategies to hide wealth are often unconscious efforts to keep feelings of shame at bay” (p. 151). Money can be a tool of humiliation both to those who don’t have it and those that do.

As a consequence O’Neill (1999) has various recommendations to help rich children from developing full-blown Affluenza:

Reduce the emphasis on externals (appearance, possessions, achievements) and make the home environment accepting, supportive and eager to reward uniqueness. Dismantle the false sense of entitlement. Children must not feel special, deserving and entitled to anything they want.Teach gratification delay and the ability to tolerate frustration. Impatience and demands for instant gratification need to be controlled. Children need to experience and know how to handle boredom, disappointment and failure. Diffuse affluent cultural and family expectations of getting ever richer, keeping the dynasty alive. Separate money and love. Money should never be a substitute for love and attention

 

De Graaf, J., Wann, D., & Naylor, T. (2001). Affluenza. San Fancisco: Berrett-Koehler

Furnham, A. (2014). The New Psychology of Money. London: Routledge

James, O. (2007). Affluenza. London. Vermilllion

O’Neill, J. (1997). The Golden Ghetto. Wisconsin: Affuenza Project

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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