The agony of affluenza

Why wanting more only leads to more wanting

Are you suffering from affluenza? British psychologist Oliver James makes an awfully good case that we’ve come down with the virus. Affluenza is his word for a “contagious middle-class virus causing depression, anxiety, addiction and ennui” stemming from a hunger for money, flashy possessions, youthful good looks and fame. It’s not just that we want these things; it’s that we’re being constantly told we should want these things. So we overspend and overwork while disliking our faces and bodies and feeling lesser because we are not followed by paparazzi.

Affluenza is American in origin but has spread worldwide. Canadians have it – thankfully to a lesser extent – but the virus can be stopped if we recognize it and immunize ourselves. Spending all our time wanting what we haven’t got is making us miserable. The agony of affluenza is that wanting – and even getting – doesn’t lead to happiness and security; it leads to more wanting. The great wave of corporate layoffs that began in the 1980s, followed by the introduction of temporary and part-time employees, made the rich richer and everyone else permanently insecure. We skate on thin financial ice.

In his recently released book Affluenza, James conducts hundreds of interviews that lay bare a rainbow of discontent. But the horrifying thing is that I know people like this. Almost all James’s case studies are unhappy people in the rich nations – people like us.

Real estate: Think of how often you have heard a friend in Calgary or Vancouver discuss house prices, thereby subtly boasting about the rising price of their own as though they had actually earned it. Since when did a home become an investment, rather than a place where the children felt safe?

Work: When was the last time someone told you they loved their job and respected the company they worked for? No, most people launch into a flood of not-unjustified loathing of their bosses and co-workers.

Appearances: I talk to friends I once considered sane and discover they’ve had their lips inflated and snake venom injected into their wrinkles. Soon we’ll be having facelifts. Will no one say it out loud? We can ship packages to Mars and laser our retinas without damage, but human facelifts still do not work. Facelifted women look eight months younger, sure, but they look as if they’ve been injected with The Fear.

City tractors: I cannot respect anyone driving a Hummer unless they are actually towing combine harvesters from farm to farm. But people buy these things to drive a block or two, always with a smug look, as though they are masters of all they survey.

Fame: This one is truly perverse. Fame is fleeting. Success in a glass menagerie such as show business makes aspirants less secure, not more so, which explains why so many celebrities divide their time between performing and rehab.

The problem is that once basic human needs are fulfilled, the next thing is what you want. And that’s something you can’t always get, as Mick Jagger says. Even worse, what if you get it and you’re still not happy? That’s what happens to all of us. Rich people aren’t happy, for the simple reason that no matter how much money they have, there is always someone with more. (Take note, Barbara Amiel.) They will always reach higher for a star out of their grasp. It’s time for us to scale down.

The vaccine to the virus, James says, is to be, rather than to have. Aim for authenticity rather than presenting a flawless face. Instead of buying compulsively, follow the artist William Morris’s rule and own nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

Finding and keeping a job is terrifying. So cut down on the pointless spending that keeps you on the brink. Appreciate your non-monster home and your small gas-conserving car. Buy clothes that last for years, not just a season. Remember that your children, not you, come first.

Want less.

Readers, I apologize for the sermon. But I had my own absurd affluenza years. Hard economic times lie ahead. How much better we will cope with hardship if we just be and do, rather than have and want.