February 2016

How to Cure Affluenza

Author: Kent Thune

If you pay much attention to mass media, you may have heard about the wealthy “affluenza teen,” who killed four people while driving recklessly and intoxicated. Rather than a prison sentence, the teenager’s attorneys were able to convince the judge that a lighter punishment of 10 years’ probation plus rehabilitation was more appropriate, because the teen was suffering from “affluenza.” And making the news most recently, the Texas teen was caught skipping out on his probation while visiting a strip club in Mexico with his mother.

But this story is not about a spoiled, criminal-minded teenager with bad parents. It’s about the prevalence of a common human condition that has existed for centuries but has only been recently described, or rather diagnosed, as “affluenza.” More important, how can we cure this disease?

Just as it sounds, affluenza is a term that combines the words affluence and influenza. The so-called disease is thought to have come into being alongside the rise of consumerism in the mid-1900s and was brought more into the mainstream consciousness in a popular 1997 PBS documentary, which was followed by the 2001 book, Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic, by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor. The book describes affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

Referring briefly back to the case of the affluenza teen, his attorneys argued that his spoiled and rich upbringing created a condition where the boy didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Although this argument seems ridiculous on its surface, how far is it from the truth? Has materialism, consumerism and the increasing exposure to television, the Internet, and social media grown to the degree that it has wedged a greater distance between ourselves and reality than we have ever seen before as a society?

Let’s begin answering these questions by directing more specific questions to ourselves. Have you ever, knowingly or unknowingly, placed money above all other priorities in your life? Have you ever passed over the lower-cost, generic product for the higher-priced product that carries more social prestige? Do you believe the only thing that can bring you more happiness than money is more money? Have you ever run across something in your house that you haven’t used in years and wonder why you ever bought it in the first place?

If we are being honest, this humble writer will be the first to raise his hand and admit guilt on all four of those, especially in the past. If you can make the same admission you may have, at some point, been struck by a case of affluenza, or at least some of its symptoms.

Affluenza is considered to be most present here in the United States, where our culture can tend to encourage us to measure our worth by financial success and material possessions. This is not a complaint, and it is not a suggestion that some kind conspiracy against the citizens of our country exists, but it is a simple observation about consumerism, which forms a figurative petri dish where affluenza can flourish.

How can we help but think that having the big house, the new car, the trendy clothes and the bling-bling jewelry will help us find happiness and attract the perfect mate in our lives? We are barraged daily with images of happy, attractive people jumping in the air with fistfuls of dollars, or stepping into sports cars while crowds of poor saps look on with envy, or winking at waiters in 5-star restaurants while handing over gold-plated credit cards. How can we all not want the good life? There’s nothing wrong with wanting more for ourselves but our culture has us believing that “the good life” means living with great financial wealth, the best material possessions money can buy, and the highest of social status.

Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, provides a poignant description of consumerism in Western cultures: “Paradoxically, what keeps the so-called consumer society going is the fact that trying to find yourself through things doesn’t work: The ego satisfaction is short-lived and so you keep looking for more, keep buying, keep consuming.” In different words, we try to form our identities through our possessions. And although we fail in the attempt, we are convinced that the acquisition of more will eventually lead to success.

And when observing other cultures and countries around the world, numerous studies about happiness, all generally falling under a relatively new scientific category of Happiness Economics, have revealed that having more money does not bring more happiness. The findings are that the richest nations, such as America, are not the happiest. Rich countries may be generally happier than poor ones, but once the most extreme of poverty is overcome, the connection between wealth and happiness begins to diminish. Put simply, if a $50,000 annual salary is enough to pay the bills and buy a few small pleasures, a $500,000 salary won’t make you 10 times happier.

Although the idea of affluenza seems to lie somewhere between serious epidemic and lightweight comedy, a prudent observation to make is that, while there are some exceptions, the descriptions and points made about it are generally true. With that said, it seems a bit of a stretch to say affluenza is, in fact, a disease on par with real physical sickness. Instead, we may be more the wise to view affluenza as a symptom of the greater disease of being human, of which the best cure is self-awareness.

But what is it that we are to be aware of? Perhaps we should now yield to wisdom that is more than 2,000 years old, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus: “If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

To cure affluenza through awareness, or to prevent ourselves from falling victim to any of its trappings, we can remind ourselves frequently that many of our behaviors are mindless repetitions and imitations of information we’ve consumed in our daily lives. In this regard, we become products of our own environment. But with self-awareness, or rather mindful reflection, we can see the folly of our own behaviors and thus we are enabled to correct them and manage them.

This mindfulness can be maintained with a simple but powerful perspective—to be thankful for things that we have, rather than wishful for things we do not have. And we will find ourselves inoculated with a powerful dose of contentment. 

Kent Thune is a money manager and the owner of a Hilton Head Island investment advisory firm, Atlantic Capital Investments. He is also a freelance writer and is currently working on a book to be published in 2016. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at TheFinancialPhilosopher.com or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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