Consumerism & Affluenza – How Society Shapes Our Thinking about Happiness

Within the past several decades, an alarming trend has developed, one that goes far beyond just “keeping up with the Joneses.” You see, no longer is it enough to simply “keep up.” It seems that in today’s microwave mentality, we have to have things, and we have to have them right now. Everything becomes a necessity. We no longer eat to live. We live to eat. We no longer shop to survive. We survive to shop. Or as I heard it on the radio – shop til you drop, then crawl!

We have, in fact, become a society of conspicuous consumption [spending lavishly on goods and services for the sole purpose of showing off] and consumerism [equating happiness with buying and consuming goods].

There is a name/description/label to this madness. It’s called AFFLUENZA, formed from the words affluence (wealth) and influenza (also known as the flu).

Affluenza is defined as (1) The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses; (2) An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream (Affluenza, n.d.). Affluenza is the term used to explain the problems that occur “when individuals are in pursuit of money, wealth, and material possession at the expense of other sources of self-esteem and contentment” (Koplewicz & Williams, 2006, p. 1).

Although I originally wrote about this topic of affluenza (several years ago while working in the school system) to address the madness that parents go through to feed into their children’s demands to have the latest and greatest material things, I am presenting it here now to shed light on this epidemic and its impact on adults.

Affluenza affects people across all age groups and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. “Contemporary affluenza researchers contend that if we do not begin to reject our culture’s incessant demands to work harder, spend more, and buy more, our society will begin to pay later with significant effects thrust upon our offspring” (Koplewicz & Williams, 2006, p. 1).

The incessant pressure to acquire material goods can result in the following (Koplewicz & Williams, 2006): As you go through the list below, notice that it easily applies to both children and adults.

  • Inability to delay gratification or tolerate frustration
  • Difficulty maintaining interest in anything requiring effort
  • False sense of entitlement
  • Expectation of material goods without responsibility
  • Loss of future motivation
  • Life activities don’t seem very real and nothing matters much
  • Low self esteem, self worth, and loss of self confidence
  • Approval dependent on possessions and status rather than on personal values
  • Preoccupation with externals and habituation for more material goods
  • Difficulty believing people like them for themselves rather than for possessions and status
  • Inability to trust prevents true friendships
  • Emotional energy becomes invested in material gains and sensitivity toward others declines

Here are some interesting tidbits (Affluenza…Diagnosis, n.d.):

  • Americans carry $1 trillion in personal debt, approximately $4,000 for every man, woman and child, not including real estate and mortgages. On average, Americans save only 4 percent of their income, in contrast to the Japanese, who save an average of 16 percent.
  • Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them. Each American individual uses up 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. Americans throw away 7 million cars a year, 2 million plastic bottles an hour and enough aluminum cans annually to make six thousand DC-10 airplanes.
  • Even though Americans comprise only five percent of the world’s population, in 1996 we used nearly a third of its resources and produced almost half of its hazardous waste. The average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican, 10 times as much as an average Chinese and 30 times as much as the average person in India.
  • Americans on average spend only 40 minutes a week playing with their children, and members of working couples talk with one another on average only 12 minutes a day.

Back in December 2009, I wrote about the hyperactive workplace. I believe what lies at the root of the hyperactive workplace is affluenza – the “epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream” (Affluenza, n.d.). We work long hours and remain in a state of frenzy to pursue that elusive dollar to buy the things we and our families desire. And we do this day in and day out like the hamster running in circles in a cage.

In “Success Intelligence,” (2005) Robert Holden wrote, “The rise of consumerism has certainly influenced our thinking about happiness and success…We are making every effort to ‘buy, buy, buy!’ our way to happiness and success” (pp. 110, 111). While buying things can temporarily bring short-term pleasure, our prior levels of happiness soon return. In other words, we can’t buy our way to happiness.

“[W]e place all our faith in external things to make us happy. The danger here is that we lose sight of inner happiness…We forget how to be happy” (Holden, 2005, p. 112).

Imagine what your own work and workplaces would be like if you changed your views about overconsumption and what it means to be happy.

References

Affluenza. (n.d.). In Affluenza: PBS Program on the Epidemic of Overconsumption. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/

Affluenza…Diagnosis (n.d.). In Affluenza: PBS Program on the Epidemic of Overconsumption. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/diag/what.html

Holden, R. (2005). Success intelligence: Essential lessons and practices from the world’s leading coaching program on authentic success. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.

Koplewicz, H.S. & Williams, K. (2006). Affluence-Benefit or Handicap? New York University Child Study Center Letter, 11(2), 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.aboutourkids.org/files/articles/dec.pdf