Do you have Affluenza?

‘Affluenza’ – a portmanteau or blend of the words ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’ – is said to be a ‘virus’ caused by a combination of consumerism, property fever, and the battle of the sexes, resulting in consumer debt, overwork, waste, environmental harm, psychological disorders, alienation, and distress.

Over the past decade or so, a number of books have been published under the title Affluenza. The word first appeared sometime between the 50s and the 70s, taking off in the 1990s following the broadcast of the American documentary of the same name, and the subsequent book by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor in 2001. They define ‘Affluenza’ as:

‘a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.’

Like many novel neologisms or coinages, the term is not without controversy. At least one psychologist wants to ‘eradicate this word from our vocabularies’.

So how can you know if you have ‘Affluenza’? And how can it be treated – or immunised against?

Click to play the ‘Do you have  Affluenza?’ podcast:


If you live in Britain (England, Scotland or Wales), New Zealand, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen, New York, or similar environments, you’re at risk of infection, according to Oliver James, author of Affluenza: How to be successful and stay sane.

The PBS website for the Affluenza documentary provides a quick quiz to see if you are suffering from ‘Affluenza’.

Symptoms and treatment

James contrasts a number of positive behaviours with ‘virus-infected’ ones:

  1. Act positive not think positive
  2. Have intrinsic not extrinsic motives
  3. Be beautiful not attractive
  4. Consume what you need not what advertisers tell you to want
  5. Meet your children’s needs not the desires of little adults
  6. Educate your children not brainwash them
  7. Enjoy motherhood not desperate housewifery
  8. Be authentic not sincere
  9. Vivacious not hyperactive
  10. Playful not game-playing

Some of these may require further explanation: The distinction between acting and thinking positive highlights the importance of following through on positive thoughts and plans with positive action.

A crash course on motivation

Intrinsic motivation is motivation that originates from within, such as learning the language of money because you want to enrich your own life. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from outside influences, such as studying economics at university not because you personally want to, but because your parents expect you to. Of course, it is possible to have a mix of motivations. A student studying Japanese, for example, might be interested in Japanese cartoons and wish to understand anime without having to read subtitles, while simultaneously, motivated by the fact that studying a language gets them extra credit.

These terms are often applied to the behaviour of learners, but can also explain other behaviours, such as our spending patterns.

The advantages of intrinsic motivation include greater longevity and sustainability – when we’re intrinsically motivated, we focus more on our long-term goals than the passing fads dictated by fashion.

Too much extrinsic motivation – when we are too concerned by what others think of us rather than what we really want or what will ultimately benefit us – can actually detract from our intrinsic motivation.

In an experiment cited by James, two groups of students were given puzzle cubes to play with, one group paid, the other not. The paid group actually lost interest and became distracted sooner than those who weren’t paid: ‘Money changed the focus. The unpaid volunteers reported playing with the cube because it was fun or because they chose to; for the paid students the interesting, enjoyable, challenging aspect of the activity got lost’.

Have you immunised your children against Affluenza?

Given the importance of our childhood experiences in shaping our financial literacy and our ideas about money, it is appropriate that over a quarter of James’ book is devoted to parenting and children. (Although much of the advice given applies equally to those of us without children, and the tendency to downplay the large proportion of the population without children by choice or circumstance is unfortunate).

The first step James offers is to ‘Sort out your childhood’ – reflecting on the lessons learned in your own upbringing.

The second, under which the above advice is clustered, is to ‘Reject much of the status quo’ – both for yourself, and your children.

Promoting awareness

Neologisms like ‘Affluenza’ often become buzzwords, popping up in the media from time to time. Their novelty can draw our attention to issues that need to be discussed. Certainly, unrelenting consumerism, debt, overwork, waste and pollution, alienation, stress, and anxiety all need serious attention. However, in 2013, the word ‘Affluenza’ hit the headlines for all the the wrong reasons – drawing our attention not to the plight of the common citizen in the pressure cooker of ads, social media, and other sources of constant social comparison (as my next post will examine), but to the state of the legal system, with ‘Affluenza’ used as a defense in a particularly tragic case.

The shifting definitions of ‘Affluenza’ can be seen in an excerpt from this article:

The psychologist on the case gave a bizarre interview to CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week and doubled down on his contention that Affluenza is a real syndrome, going on to state that 80 percent of Americans actually suffer from Affluenza. Wait, what? Even if we suspend reality for a moment and assumed Affluenza was a real condition, it would by definition affect the wealthy—who, I am sorry to inform the good doctor, are not 80 percent of the population.

But does ‘Affluenza’ only affect the wealthy?

In its original formulation, the ‘affulue(nt)’ morpheme in ‘Affluenza’ refers not to a characteristic of the “sufferer”, but to the nature of their “disease” – ‘Affluenza’ is, after all, a “disease” of wanting to be more and more affluent – not (at least until this case) a disease affecting the affluent only. (Just as ‘chickenpox‘ describes the weak (‘chicken’) nature of the pox in comparison with others, not any cowardice of those who catch it, and the ‘common flu’ describes its prevalent nature, not the socioeconomic class of its sufferers).

Defining Affluenza as both a condition that specifically affects the very wealthy, and as a condition that affects the majority of society demonstrates the paucity of the argument in this case.

As Dr. Michelle K. London concludes, ‘Sociopathy and narcissism are not caused by having too much money or having too little money, but can be correlated with environmental factors like abuse, neglect and poor parental attachment. Either way, these personality disorders do not bid a criminal a way out of prison and are not even remotely sufficient for an insanity defense. They can explain criminal behavior but do not excuse criminal behavior. ‘

Even if ‘Affluenza’ is not an official diagnosis category, and most certainly should not be used as a legal defense, the concept can be useful for us to consider our relationship to what we have and want – to how we define ‘more’ and ‘enough’.

The book concludes with James’ ‘Unselfish Capitalist Manifesto’:

‘Meet your needs, not your wants; Be, don’t have; Cooperate as well as compete’

Watch the documentary
Take the quiz

Are you suffering from Affluenza? Or perhaps recovering from it?

Today’s featured image is a sample of our high tea at The Marine Hotel, Scotland. Certainly not our usual afternoon tea!

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