May 1, 2003

Affluenza: The American Bug

by Thomas H. Naylor

Like most Americans, are you spending more and enjoying it less? Do your kids still say, "We're bored. What can we do?" even though their playthings include lots of sports equipment, expensive mountain bikes, a fancy new computer, the latest video games, and a room full of high-tech musical and video toys? Not content with your new Honda, do you have your eye on a BMW or possibly a gas guzzling sport utility vehicle? How many times have your credit cards maxed out lately? What draws you to the mall, even though you hate crowds, and you complain about the schmaltzy piped-in music, the insipid smells, the fake glitter, and the plastic yuck? Do you enjoy working so hard to pay for all the stuff your family buys -- stuff which, more often than not, just sits around being used by no one?

Without realizing it, you may be suffering from a highly contagious malady, affluenza. Millions have been infected with this virus, which originated in the United States but has spread throughout the world. Affluenza is an obsession with materialism -- consumer goods and services -- ranging from beer, cosmetics, clothes, cigarettes, soft drinks, junk food, recreational drugs, video games and rock music to automobiles, computers, electronic gadgets, expensive homes, priceless art objects, high-tech health care, and international travel. Those infected with the disease often suffer from overwork and stress in addition to viral overconsumption. It affects both the rich and poor alike. The more you have, the more you want.

In an attempt to numb the effects of the pain and suffering associated with meaninglessness, many seek meaning through a life based on having -- owning, possessing, consuming, and controlling people, things, machines, and financial wealth. As a nation we are so obsessed with having that we have lost our ability to be human beings.

One of the ways in which we try to convince ourselves that we will live forever is through conspicuous consumption. Consumption seduces us into believing we can find security and certainty in an otherwise uncertain, meaningless world. We think we can spend our way into a state of never-ending self-actualization without paying any psychological dues for our life of unrestrained pleasure. Our sense of meaning rests entirely on what we own, possess, and consume. The harder we work, the more money we will have, the more we can buy, and the happier we will be -- so the story goes.

But if that were really true, why are so many people in the United States so anxious, so angry, so unhappy, so cynical, and so stressed out? Why are the rates of divorce, suicide, depression, abortion, substance abuse, and incarceration so high, if the American dream is working the way it is supposed to work? Although real per capita personal consumption expenditures nearly tripled over the last half century, the percentage of people claiming to be "very happy" has actually declined by 5 percent. The Index of Social Health has decreased by almost 50 percent since 1973.

Even though we live in a period of unprecedented prosperity, it is also the time of the living dead. The living dead can be found everywhere surfing the Internet, checking their e-mail messages, frequenting Internet chat rooms, day trading, glued to CNN hoping for an event in an otherwise uneventful life, driving alone across town to Wal-Mart in search of more low-priced plastic yuck, stopping at McDonald's for a quick taste-free meal. Our government, our politicians and the high priests of Corporate America pull our strings.

Our entire economy is driven by our intense psychological need to fill our spiritual and emotional vacuum with more and more stuff and our illusion that the accumulation of wealth and material possessions can provide meaning to life. If we feel down and need a lift, we buy a new dress, have dinner in a nice restaurant, or rent a video. The less meaning we have in our life the easier it is to be seduced by the materialistic work hard, play hard, be happy syndrome -- a syndrome that is based on a lie.

There are no quick-fix patent medications to cure affluenza. We must find alternatives to owning, possessing and consuming more material goods -- alternatives which involve our own creations, our personal relationships, our communities and our stand toward fate beyond our control. It's hard to imagine a long-term cure for affluenza which does not involve loving, caring, sharing, cooperating and participating in communities rather than owning, manipulating and controlling people, power and things.

There is a price to be paid for snuffing our affluenza. But it's worth it.

Thomas Naylor is a Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University, writer and social critic. He is the author of numerous books including The Search for Meaning and Affluenza. He has been featured on ABC's Nightline, CBS News and National Public Radio and his articles have appeared in popular magazines and newspapers such as Business Week and New York Times. Thomas Naylor was also one of the keynote speakers and workshop leaders at the ToDo Institute's tenth anviversary conference, Thirty Thousand Days: How Shall We Live (September 27-29, 2002 in Burlington, Vermont).

Posted on May 1, 2003 6:20 PM
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