Over the past several years British psychologist Oliver James has observed a virus he has termed affluenza spread through the English-speaking world. Affluenza is no ordinary illness. It targets the mind and destroys one’s emotional well-being. It can destroy friendships and marriages, leave one lonely and exhausted, and ruin childhoods. It makes for selfish, vindictive people, who are prone to depression and anxiety, which in extreme cases leads to hospitalization. And it triggers substance abuse, paranoia, and low self-esteem. In short, affluenza increases our vulnerability to emotional distress.
Since the 1950s the rates of emotional distress in the English-speaking world have rocketed, even when compared to other developed nations. The richer the country, the more emotionally distressed it is likely to be, with America being the most emotionally distressed nation by some margin. A twenty-five-year-old American is now three to ten times more likely to have depression compared to his peer in 1950, while a normal American child has pathological levels of anxiety. In Britain, emotional distress affects 25% of the population. Fully one-third of females studying at Oxford University have had an eating disorder at some point in their life. Men are not immune either: those who earn more than $75,000 per year are more likely to be clinically depressed. Nor are the rich: those worth more than $100 million are less happy than the average American. All of these emotional problems have occurred during a period that has witnessed unprecedented wealth and opportunity. The types of emotional distress now experienced by English-speaking nations are myriad, and include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorder, narcissism, and confused identity.
The cause of many of these emotional problems is the adoption of a set of material values that increases our vulnerability to emotional distress. Genes, hormones, and chemical imbalances do not explain the dramatic rise in psychological illnesses in English-speaking nations over the last fifty years. These material values include an emphasis on money, possessions, appearance, and fame. We have become obsessed with measuring ourselves and others by these values. There is also a conviction that consumption, market forces, and economics meet human needs of every kind. When we adopt such values we become infected with the affluenza virus, which makes us emotionally unstable and has a detrimental effect upon the societies we inhabit. In order to understand the dramatic rise in emotional distress in English-speaking societies, the author travelled the world to trace its cause, and to observe the spread of affluenza. He found the origins of the modern form of the virus to be in New York, and that is where the journey now begins.
The source of the affluenza virus can be traced to New York, specifically to the culture fostered by Wall Street. An in-depth study of New York stockbrokers found two-thirds to be clinically depressed. Many were plagued by negative thoughts and had extremely high levels of anxiety and sleeplessness; others demonstrated paranoia. The study also found high levels of depersonalization or feeling detached from one’s surroundings, unable to empathize with others. To counter these feelings, New York stockbrokers consumed on average two packets of cigarettes per day, took an illegal substance twice a day, and swallowed significant quantities of alcohol. Many had heart problems in their twenties. Yet these were seemingly successful men, glamorized by Hollywood, who earned a great deal of money, and lived a luxurious life few could aspire to. Further analysis of the stockbrokers revealed many had been high achievers at school, before moving into an occupation that demanded a hundred hours per week without holidays for the first two years. Such working hours quickly ended friendships and put an intense strain on marital relationships.
The spread of the virus through New York and beyond was aided by the advertising culture exemplified by Times Square. Modern advertising fosters unhappiness with ourselves, our possessions, and our life. Since the end of the Second World War advertising executives have deliberately tried to sell a lifestyle rather than the effectiveness of a product. People were first taught to buy soap on the promise it would make them more beautiful, rather than simply clean; cars were for prestige, rather than just for travel; even oranges were for vitality, not just nutrition. In order to be cool and creative you needed to purchase an Apple computer. In order to be hip you needed to use that Apple computer while supping a gingerbread latte in Starbucks. To have a happy family holiday you had to stay at a certain type of hotel or travel on a certain airline. To be productive and successful a certain type of cell phone was required. You had to live in a particular neighborhood, with a particular brand of car, otherwise you were branded a failure. The list is endless. In short, true needs are conflated with manufactured wants. Or, in the words of one top advertising executive, “Advertising at it’s best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. ... You open up emotional vulnerabilities.”
Unfortunately, the virus was not contained. The affluenza virus spread far from New York to other English-speaking nations. In Australia, 350,000 cosmetic interventions for nonmedical reasons are carried out every year on people concerned with their appearance. The working day has increased, lunch-breaks declined, rush hour has become earlier, and property values have rocketed, as have sales of luxury yachts. Despite an increase in the working day, and in wealth, two-thirds of Australians say they cannot afford everything they need. This increase in wealth and property prices, and the supposed improvement brought about by cosmetic surgery, has not brought increased happiness. One-fifth of the Australian population has some form of emotional distress. Between 1997 and 2001 reported psychological illness rose by 50%. Most of the young population is shackled by large debts from university, added to which is a large mortgage due to rising property prices, resulting in people working longer hours in jobs they do not find fulfilling. The same is true in America and England. As with the case of the New York stockbrokers, Australian CEOs find that they have little to do upon retiring. They are wealthy, but “having” has replaced “being.” While they may own a prestigious car and a large property, they find little else in their life beyond work and consumption. They are often divorced, their family fragmented, and they find themselves with few meaningful friendships, after not having the time to develop them after years of long working hours.
In Britain, there are around 2.5 million cosmetic surgery procedures per year. Property values and personal debt have also increased rapidly. A generation or two ago, personal debt or credit would have seemed morally dubious, now it is rampant. As with Australia, two-thirds of the population believe they cannot afford to buy what they need, though needs are again confused with wants, as nearly every home has a television, telephone, a washing machine, and central heating. There is a fascination with over-sized, expensive American fridges that do exactly the same job as a smaller, inexpensive fridge. Among the highest earners, 40% believe they cannot afford everything they need. The same higher earners also suffer from higher rates of depression or anxiety, and 25% of the entire British population suffers from some form of serious emotional illness.
The affluenza virus can also be found in unexpected locations, though such places also tend to be English speaking. In 1959, Singapore faced high unemployment, economic instability, and was in danger of becoming part of Indonesia. With the help of the United Nations, Singapore set out to become a major economic power within forty years. The aim was to attract foreign investment and exploit the harbor. In terms of material wealth, the country is thriving. Singapore became a successful regional hub for trade and finance. The harbor is the second busiest in the world. Crime in Singapore is outstandingly low, and children perform near the top of international tests. By any economic measure Singapore is a success story, but scratch beneath the surface, and that success starts to unravel. Due to excessive educational pressure to succeed, 21% of thirteen- to twenty-year-olds have depression or anxiety. The levels of depression in the population as a whole runs at 16%. The working week is typically sixty hours, and everything is directed towards better economic performance. When substance abuse, impulsiveness, and aggression are factored in, Singapore suffers more emotional distress than continental European countries, and the same as most other English-speaking countries, little wonder in a country that lists shopping as its favored leisure activity.
Though the affluenza virus spreads predominantly through English-speaking nations, it also infects populations within countries that adopt contemporary American values. If Starbucks is a reference point for the spread of modern American capitalism, then the less Starbucks branches there are in a nation, the happier that nation is. As of 2007, there was not a single Starbucks in Denmark, and Denmark is the happiest nation in the world. Similarly, emotional distress increases in nations in direct correlation to their exposure to American clothes, brands, sporting goods, television shows, and education. While the rates of emotional distress in major nations such as Russia and China are much lower than English-speaking nations, those populations within Russia and China, such as the New Rich, which have adopted American consumer values, are increasingly vulnerable to selfishness, work and education pressure, depression, family breakup, and anxiety. The rampant consumer capitalism of Shanghai has caused massive rates of emotional distress, especially in children, and it is to China we must now turn.
In China, before Chairman Mao came to power, elite jobs were competed for by young adults schooled in the arts. Applicants had to demonstrate a mastery of classical texts that seemingly had little relevance for their career. Chinese luminaries believed this mastery created moral people who could think for themselves, while any technical knowledge could be learnt on the job. Similarly, the British education system emphasized the study of Greek and Latin texts as a prerequisite for an elite profession. In both cases, the aim of education was to produce a human being, capable of scholarship, with an inquiring mind, a sense of virtue, and an emotionally sound life. This aim changed as the twentieth century progressed. Since 1978 the stated objective of Chinese education has been to foster economic growth. Elite students now focus on practical, vocational courses such as engineering, finance, dentistry, and medicine. Children as young a three can enroll on an Early MBA course in order to gain “enrichment education for tomorrow’s leaders.” Such children are ferried to multiple foreign language classes, maths tuition, and piano practice in a day that begins at 7:15 a.m. and finishes in the early evening. Remember, these children are three years old. The hope of the parents is to produce economically productive offspring who eventually become a leader in their chosen field of finance, science, or medicine. The English-speaking world is not immune to these practices.
In England, as with America and Australia, the purpose of education has moved from cultivating virtue, inquiry, and creativity to learning for the simple sake of earning. The aim of the education system is to spawn little producers who then use their earnings to become consumers. Elite graduates are now swept up into the financial services—which employ 19% of the workforce in Britain—or medicine, dentistry, or engineering. Such professions are well rewarded, though frequently require working eighteen-hour days upon graduation. Female graduates from leading universities report such jobs allow them to acquire Gucci tights, Dior handbags, and expensive shoes, yet they lack relationships, emotional security, with no thought of motherhood until it is often too late.
Since 1987 girls have outperformed boys in almost every academic subject at every educational stage. In the same period, there has been a 14% rise in depression and anxiety among girls, meaning that 38% of teenage girls suffer from some type of emotional distress. The rates of emotional distress that involved hospitalization also rose from 6% to 18%. There was no corresponding rise in boys, perhaps because boys were not subject to the same academic pressures as girls, nor urged to compete for elite jobs, nor did they subject themselves to the same levels of self-analysis as teenage girls do. The girls at some of the top private schools in London reported that however much they achieved, however much they bested the boys, it simply was never good enough. The more they accomplished, the lower their self-esteem, so by the age of fifteen English girls are the most stressed in the world. The conclusions from this make uncomfortable reading. We have observed how male New York stockbrokers can earn vast sums at the expense of their health and relationships. Similarly, a young female in the English-speaking world might become a dentist, a doctor, or financial consultant; she might also ignore the creative and inquiring subjects of the humanities, but in the process she is in real danger of becoming a little less human, emotionally unstable, subject to low self-esteem with poor personal relationships. However, she will have a Dior handbag to comfort herself. At this point a person might ask, is this the point of education?
While girls and young women are suffering in English-speaking countries due to academic and career pressures, women, more generally, are significantly more likely to be depressed than men. Since 1950, though education and income has improved at a dramatic rate, women have become more emotionally distressed. A girl born between 1975 and 1985 will have more chance of suffering from a mental health disorder than her grandmother, she will also be less happy, and find it more difficult to raise her children, despite being more educated, and having more opportunities afforded to her. Part of the problem is the devaluing of motherhood. Those infected with the affluenza virus believe that only paid work is a source of self-esteem, which puts pressure upon mothers to return to work soon after giving birth. The obsession with consumption, a big house with a big mortgage, or a newly minted luxury car, also necessitates many new mothers returning to the workplace, resulting in a ludicrous situation wherein young mothers are returning to work only to pay other young women to care for their children. Now, half of all new mothers in the English-speaking world have exhaustion, 15% have major depression, and 80% are experiencing relationship difficulties with their spouse. These emotional difficulties cannot be attributed to hormonal changes after giving birth. In traditional societies, a mother might have had the help of her mother and grandmother, and the extended family would have lived nearby, providing a source of support. In contrast, in English-speaking countries the baby has total dependence upon the mother, while there is no one to give her a break. The only respite comes when she reluctantly hands her child over to a nursery or day-care provider. This puts further strain upon working mothers, who intuitively know that having an unrelated person look after her child is not a good thing.
Studies now prove beyond doubt that between the age of six months to three years is the most formative in establishing patterns of relationships in later life. A child who is not looked after properly during this period is more likely to be insecure, aggressive, or indiscriminately friendly. The best form of childcare is an infant cared for by a mother supported by her extended family. Next, is a relation such as a grandmother. Then a single unrelated carer such as a nanny. Lastly, the worst form of care is for a young child to be placed in communal daycare with multiple carers.
It would be enough if mothers were emotionally distressed due to a lack of postnatal support, or the absence of an extended family. However, there is also heightened dissatisfaction with the female postnatal figure. In societies infected with the affluenza virus, the fuller figure of a mother appears unattractive, especially when the society emphasizes the attractiveness of waif-like, teenage thin bodies. In contrast, societies that are not exposed to the feminine ideals of television and advertising, have very different conceptions of female attractiveness. In this regard, there is no starker example than Fiji.
Television was first introduced into Fiji in 1995. In that year, there were no recorded incidences of self-induced vomiting. Three years after the introduction of television 11% of Fijian women were bulimic. Moreover, the cultural preference for females with comfortable figures was replaced with an inclination towards thin women. This concern with feminine appearance is apparent in most English-speaking nations, and it not only causes emotional distress to women, it also predictably changes the behavior of men. The profession with the highest divorce rate in America is that of a male elementary school teacher. Researchers were puzzled by this, until they realized that male school teachers came into daily contact with young mothers, typically in their twenties, and at their most nubile and beguiling. This caused male teachers to compare their older spouses with these younger women on a daily basis. The result was a dissatisfaction with their current wife, that built up over time, and eventually led to divorce. Again, this seems to be a particularly American problem, which then spreads to other English-speaking countries.
Modern Russian women are generally regarded as tall, slender, and beautiful. In his travels, the author of Affluenza found this to be the case. Yet he found that young Russian women were less influenced by consumer culture, and that they found such culture sad and pitiful. He found them extremely well read in serious literature, eager for intellectual debate, polite and forthcoming, but unwilling to use their beauty or figure to their advantage. At the time of writing, there was still no Starbucks in Russia, no American chain stores, and little evidence of identikit-branded clothing. Consequently, lower rates of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders among Russian women are notable by their absence. Russian women had not been infected by the affluenza virus.
Russian women are not the only women who are immune to the virus. Danish women, and Danish society more generally, offer clues as to how one might vaccinate against the virus. In Denmark, the female form is less evident, and women place less emphasis on their appearance. Denmark also has the smallest gap between the salaries of the highest and lowest earners. Typically, a Danish high earner will only earn four times more than a low paid worker. He is taxed hard, but the country has low levels of debt, and the money is plowed back in the country. Poverty has been virtually abolished, there is a strong economy, and people work fewer hours than in English-speaking countries. As the culture and tax system discourages being massively richer than others, material wealth is not seen as a source of status, nor is the car a person drives, or the things they own. Multinational companies realize this, as there is little market for luxury goods, and new consumer items struggle to penetrate until the price falls. The result is that both Danish men and women are also the happiest people of any nation, and levels of emotional distress are very low. Denmark is by no means an ideal society. There are problems, especially relating to communal childcare. However, it serves as a useful example of how emotional happiness is most definitely not contingent upon acquiring wealth, consuming goods, or keeping up appearances.
There is a constant refrain in those infected with the affluenza virus. That is, dissatisfaction with one’s lot, and unfavorably comparing oneself to those who appear to have more. Making such comparisons makes one depressed. Looking at beautiful women makes men unhappy with their current wife; when women observe beautiful women it lowers their satisfaction with their own bodies. Observing a neighbor’s new Mercedes and comparing it to one’s own rust-bucket makes one feel like a loser; as does envying a colleague’s salary or expensive foreign holiday.
People who are emotionally distressed or clinically depressed often make a greater number of social comparisons. They lack self-esteem, and have little confidence in their own life and achievements. This is one of the main symptoms of the affluenza virus: in making one value possessions, wealth, and appearances above all else, it makes a person forget about his intrinsic core values such as honesty, contentment, generosity, service, and gratitude. Instead, a person is judged by how many toys he owns, or how much he earns, even if he is a shallow, lonely, emotional screw-up.