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Diagnosis: Affluenza

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It’s an epidemic that’s sweeping the nation and infecting millions of American consumers with an insatiable desire for more. Have you got the bug? Take our quiz and assess your treatment options.

Are you winning the accumulation game, but losing your shirt? Working so hard to pay the bills that you can’t find time to exercise, sleep or eat properly?

If you are consuming material goods at a faster pace than you are building happiness and satisfaction, you may have contracted “affluenza” – one of the most common and virulent social maladies of our time. The term “affluenza” first became part of the popular lexicon as the title of a highly acclaimed PBS documentary series. The show later spawned a companion book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John De Graaf (the show’s producer) and co-authors David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor. Since then, the term has increasingly entered mainstream vocabulary, using the metaphor of disease to describe the damage being done to our physical and mental health, our communities and our environment by the obsessive, often unquestioned quest for material gain.

Affluenza has many symptoms. Bulging closets, cupboards, shelves and drawers (particularly if they are stuffed with unworn clothes, unheard CDs, unread books, rarely used toys, equipment, electronics and other gadgets). Attics, basements and garages packed with same. Bloated credit card bills. The feeling that you are forever catching up but never getting ahead. Not being able to remember the last meaningful conversation you had with close friends or loved ones. The sense you are stuck in a repetitive cycle of working harder, spending more, while enjoying, playing and resting less.

If any of these are sounding too close to home, you’ve probably caught the affluenza bug. If so, you aren’t alone; most Americans have it.

The Possession Obsession

Although recent woes have put a drag on our economy, the United States is still, and has long been, an extraordinarily wealthy nation. What most Americans see as bare necessities – hot running water, central heating, air conditioning and automobiles – are unimagined luxuries for much of the world’s population, and were unimagined luxuries even for royalty just a century ago.

Even in the past 50 years, the rising tide of wealth has doubled household income, allowing us to enjoy “the good life” even more. Our houses are more than twice the size our grandparents’ houses were. We have multiple telephones, televisions and cars, plus all the other goodies that have come along in the meantime, like microwave ovens, DVD players and personal computers. Never in the history of humankind have so many people had it so good.

Or so we think.

In reality, Americans are working more hours than ever before – more than any preceding generation and more than virtually any other culture (on average, Europeans work about 400 hours less per year). And while we’ve been focused on constantly increasing productivity and expanding our economy, we’ve overtaxed many of our natural resources, killed off countless species, and generated more waste and pollution than we know what to do with. We’ve made food faster and more convenient, but we’ve also made it more fattening, less wholesome and less nourishing.

While it is certainly true that many of the conveniences that we enjoy make our lives easier and more comfortable, some have begun to argue that we have made the acquisition of material objects too much the center of our lives. The relentless pursuit of stuff that is better, faster, neater (or just the very latest) tends to undermine deeper and more lasting sources of happiness: the quality of our relationships, our commitment to our communities, our spiritual lives, even the appreciation of our natural environment.

We work more to make more, but then we spend it and have less to show for it than we’d hoped. Instead of feeling pampered, we feel more stressed, hurried and harried. Instead of feeling in control of our daily choices, we may feel that our lives are living us.

Affluenza is an epidemic that permeates both our culture and our individual, daily existence. More people go to shopping malls than to churches. We spend more on jewelry and watches than we do on higher education. We give lip service to family values and spiritual growth, but then spend more of our hours in the pursuit of material goods than we do at virtually anything else. Marketers target us with slogans like “slam it down fast.” And we do, buying and discarding at an alarming rate.

Bill Me

Like any other disease, affluenza takes hold of us by finding weak spots in our immune system. In this case, it’s a psychological immune system—the system that monitors our satisfaction with our lives and our selves. To get through our natural defenses, affluenza needs an “in,” and two of its most powerful accomplices, dissatisfaction and consumer debt, work together in a vicious circle.

The less happy one is with one’s self and one’s life, the more stuff one tends to buy in order to compensate. The more compulsively one spends, the more one tends to accumulate debt. Debt, in turn, tends to undermine our self-esteem and satisfaction, causing us to want to spend even more money in an attempt to distract from or momentarily rebuild it. We feel empty, we buy something, we feel better. But even as we attempt to buy ourselves the symbols of accomplishment, status and self-worth, we end up giving more and more of our power over to consumer debt—which, according to Federal Reserve figures, has been steadily rising since the late 1950s, when credit cards were introduced. The average consumer now has about $8,000 in consumer debt (not counting mortgages), and this year, collectively, for the first time in history, Americans actually spent more than they made. As a nation, we are quite literally spending ourselves silly.

Horde of Plenty

What has all of this spending gotten us? Basically, a whole lot of stuff! In fact, we have so much stuff that our houses no longer hold it all. Never mind that today’s garages are the size of a 1950s family home. The self-storage business (nonexistent 50 years ago) has exploded into a $12 billion industry. You know you’ve got a bad case of affluenza when you have more stuff than you can store and have to pay someone else to take care of it.

The mass of goods we own might be justified if it seemed that we were happier, more fulfilled and living contented lives. However, the effects of affluenza aren’t limited to our finances or homes; they strike our bodies and minds too.

It seems that all this time we’ve been heading to the drive-through and the mall, major indices of mental and physical health have been heading straight south. For example, by some estimates, since World War II, rates of depression have skyrocketed tenfold. Since the 1950s, teen suicide has increased nearly threefold and the divorce rate has doubled. Family counselors generally name money as the most likely cause for marriage breakups.

Our bodies aren’t fairing much better. We spend so much time working to pay the bills that we don’t have time or energy to work out, to cook and eat properly, or even to have a decent conversation. Exhausted, we park ourselves on our new couches in front of our new DVD players, or we go out shopping in search of some other “simple” pleasure. Our spending on fast food has increased from $6 billion to a whopping $110 billion in the past 30 years. Meanwhile, conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many cancers (so-called illnesses of wealth in which lifestyle and diet play a large role) have been on the rise. The shortage of satisfying, meaningful free time and the seeking of solace in stuff is, quite literally, killing us.

Getting Over Affluenza

“All beings seek happiness,” says the Dalai Lama. Presumably, we buy all this stuff because we want fulfillment and satisfaction in life. But social science research has consistently shown that lasting well-being does not come from material consumption. Once basic physical needs are taken care of (i.e., a person has enough to eat, adequate shelter and basic clothing) most “returns to happiness” come from social and psychological sources. Enjoying rich personal relationships and finding a deeper sense of purpose in one’s life is much more likely to cultivate happiness than simply being upwardly mobile.

This very basic realization—that acquiring even the neatest stuff may not result in a commensurate amount of satisfaction or happiness—might well be the most fundamental step toward curing affluenza. The problem is, the very nature of success in our culture sits in direct opposition to that realization. Our economy is based on an ideal of a constantly expanding Gross Domestic Product (GDP). “Produce more, consume more” is seen as the basic formula for success at almost every level of business and commerce.

Ever since WWII, when patriotic purchasing became part of every American’s post-war duty, there’s been a very real assumption that the more we buy, the stronger our economy will get. Businesses aim for 20 percent annualized growth. We all aim for better cars and bigger houses. An entire industry—marketing and advertising—is devoted to making us feel dissatisfied with what we have. And to a point, of course, all this works.

But not everyone thinks that this definition of economic success is a wise or sustainable one. Many argue that on a planet with limited natural resources, any economy based on constant expansion is doomed to eventually self-destruct. Others suggest that a GDP that counts all growing costs as “good” things—even those associated with incarceration, chemotherapy and toxic-waste disposal—may be short-sighted. Still others bemoan a consumer-driven culture in which we are so busy earning and spending money that we rarely stop to consider what we are doing, or why.

In their wildly successful book, Your Money or Your Life, co-authors Joe Dominguez and Vickie Robin offer readers a program to analyze their consumption habits and then assess the real impacts they are having on their quality of life. According to their approach, first you track your expenditures, your income and costs of achieving that income in order to find out how much your time is really worth on an hourly basis. You also assess how many waking hours you likely have left to live (prepare for a shock – it’s not nearly as much as you might think). Then, each time you make a purchase, you can assess its value in realistic terms: “Is this pair of new boots really worth 14 hours of my life?”

The movement away from the rat race and toward a more balanced way of life has spawned a significant trend. Known as “downshifting,” or “voluntary simplicity,” this trend offers people various ways to consciously alter their lifestyle and/or scale back their salaries in order to support their values and non-material, personal priorities. But on a deeper level, they also suggest a fundamental shift in perspective – away from mindlessly acquiring stuff and toward living a more examined, purpose- and value-centered life.

According to a Harwood Group poll of individuals who’ve stepped off the consumption treadmill, 87 percent reported being happy and satisfied with their decision.

In Search of Meaning

In many ways, the very best way to battle affluenza is to learn—in a deep, masterful, personal way—how to truly enjoy and find meaning in life. The cultivation of meaning is an intensely personal and vital activity, and yet how often are we asked about what makes our lives meaningful? We’re told “buy this, it’ll make things better”; what really matters to us seems to get lost in the din of commercial jingles.

Moreover, we may be thinking that our work-and-spend actions are already in service to our meaning and values. “I’m working hard to provide for my children,” a busy parent might say. But to provide what? The hottest new athletic shoes and the very latest video game? The real question is, what will children remember more —that they had cool stuff, or a supportive parent who spent time goofing around with them? We’ve convinced ourselves so thoroughly that “love equals stuff” and “happiness equals stuff” that it has infiltrated even our way of raising our children. But in the end, stuff doesn’t equal either of those things. In reality, stuff is just an anesthetic that numbs us to the pain of affluenza’s real core causes – losing track of the things that do matter: our own possibilities, authentic relationships, the beauty of the world around us, life’s deeper meaning.

It’s ironic that our love affair with stuff and our single-minded pursuit of it are often the very things that keep us from reconnecting with people, from reading literature, from making art, from being outdoors, and from developing other capabilities, skills and perceptions beyond our power to earn and spend.

But there is an upside to affluenza’s epidemic proportions: Suddenly affluenza is getting a lot more attention.

Even in the midst of the most recent push toward patriotic purchasing, there is also a new values-based sensibility emerging. New questions being asked, new alternatives being sought, new solutions being offered. Perhaps it is the new sense we have of how fragile life is and how quickly everything can change that has made us more thoughtful, more serious.

Perhaps it is a sense that we have a great deal that is worth protecting and valuing. Whatever the reason, in a world where we are constantly being tempted to squander our inheritance on post-Christmas bargain shopping and keeping up with the Joneses, we are also now being invited to choose differently. We are getting a call to action, a call to decide—not just what we want to have, but who we want to be.

Dr. Jeremy Hunter is Research Director for the Quality of Life Research Institute at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.