This is an old article I wrote for Friction magazine.
A review on Oliver James’ ‘Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane’.
Have you been affected the social bug of Affluenza? Do you place a high level of importance on acquiring money, physical and social appearance and do you always want more? The main backbone of this book is the fact that materialism is as detrimental to our health as smoking is to our lungs. Americans and Britons have the highest susceptibility to psychological vulnerability such as depression, anxiety, personality disorder and substance abuse according to Oliver James’ book entitled Affluenza – a portmanteau of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’, the social germ that infects the materialistically dissatisfied nouveau-riche.
Oliver James turns two year’s worth of studying into a book. He separates the word ‘want’ from ‘need’ and gives the reader a huge wake-up call by giving realistic case studies and accounts of the current social dynamics of contemporary living. Over these two research-based years, James travelled to seven countries around the globe in order to carry out a comparative social study. The outcome proved that America promotes the virus, whereas mainland European nations have three times less psychological instability. James’ suggests we should all live like the Danes – Denmark was found to be the least affected by Affluenza. He found younger generations to be much more inflicted with the virus than older ones. Teen Americans were found to be most consumed with Affluenza-promoting cultural and social imperialism. James proves America to be the quintessential example of selfish capitalism. Perhaps the current headlines of American celebrities in gossip magazines can also add verification to James’ studies.
James provides evidence that English-tongued nations are much more likely to suffer from mental instability than Western European nations. His shocking studies prove the US to suffer mentally significantly more than countries such as Nigeria. James also undertook studies to prove that genes cannot explain this difference as studies showed that when Nigerians moved to America, they also developed common American tendencies.
This book will be of particular interest to socialists and psychologists, but is also straight-forward reading, written with lucidity and panache that enables any individual to read and question modern society. James writing style encompasses an underlying sense of fear, which subtly emerges through a sense of urgency that materialism is escalating out of control. James structures his book in an interesting style – before the prologue is a yes/no question survey entitled ‘Are you infected with Affluenza?’ which James suggests the reader carries out before embarking on the read. He also includes three appendices at the end of the book consisting of graphs of positive correlations: association between income inequality and prevalence of emotional distress and contrasting percentages of emotional distress between nations.
James uses interesting case studies of individuals. These shocking accounts of such disparity of living actually makes you reconsider that old phrase of ‘the best things in life are free’. James makes direct comparisons between individuals, such as 35 year old Sam, a New York wall-street stockbroker who is soon to inherit billions of his father’s money. He is described by a friend in a depressing way: ‘nothing interests or excites him’. Sam is compared to Consuela, a fellow New Yorker, who appears immunized against Affluenza through religion and consistent visits to Church enables her to remain cheerful and avoid the often harsh bleakness of consumerism in New York. James also investigates individuals susceptibility to emotional distress other areas of the world.
Although agreeing with the fundamentals of James’ argument, one can raise the question that his sermon-styled book may be crossing a realistic line. He argues against attractive models being used in advertisement. Understandably, sensationalised image editing could increase figures of depression but using socially desired attractiveness is a central mechanism of advertising a socially desired product. James also believes education should become less centralised around exam results, and learning should become detached from direct relationship with the industry. He states that interest and enjoyment comes before ‘pay and promotion’, but can this be a realistic suggestion is such a consumerist society?
It cannot be denied that as a society we find great enjoyment in hearing and observing the lives of the bourgeoisie – such societies occur in novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and the more contemporary Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. However, Oliver James breaks the mould of happily abiding by capitalist rules and allows us to question huge class distinctions and the major relationship between Affluenza and our increased vulnerability to psychological and emotional distress. Perhaps it is time to say enough is enough.
Oliver James has also written The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza (2008) and Britain on the Couch: Why we’re Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite being Richer (1998)