In the world’s richest countries, many who live comfortable lifestyles are discontented with what they possess, feeling they do not have enough. Millions are unhappy with their lot in life.
And looking at what others have only exacerbates the problem. A growing number are busy trying to “keep up with the Joneses”—or, perhaps more accurately stated, “outdo the Joneses.”
The pursuit of material wealth is nothing new. But this has escalated in recent years at a pace previously unseen—so much so that just before the dawn of the 21st century, sociologists gave this phenomenon a name: “affluenza.” This social “virus,” first diagnosed in America, is spreading throughout the prosperous nations of the West.
What drives it? What stokes people’s desire to want more and more, despite already having all they need?
Affluenza is coined from two words: affluent and influenza. Just as a virus spreads until it consumes its host, the social “virus” of affluenza infects millions of people, consuming their lives with the shameless pursuit of material possessions.
Game of luxury: A leather-bound Scrabble board is for sale on the Geoffrey Parker Games trade stand at the annual three-day “Salon Privé” luxury and super car event, held at the Hurlingham Club in London, England (July 22, 2009).Source: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
One hundred years ago, affluenza was virtually unknown. During World War I and the Great Depression, most people had very little, yet learned to be content. Those of the “Greatest Generation” worked hard, saved money, and bought only what they could afford, usually with cash. Times were hard, so thrift and frugality were the order of the day. As the saying went, “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
After World War II, America returned to prosperity, with companies employing aggressive tactics to attract new customers. The concept of “targeted advertising” sprang to life, as companies bombarded clearly defined age demographic segments with carefully tailored advertisements, especially targeting teenagers, and young singles and couples. The emergence of television as the major media increased advertising effectiveness, allowing companies to reach multiple millions of people simultaneously with each commercial.
Meanwhile, the Greatest Generation gave birth to the “Baby Boomers.” Parents who had suffered hardship in the Depression years did not want their children to ever go through what they had endured. In their desire to give their sons and daughters a better life, parents showered them with material possessions. This unintentionally led to a culture of entitlement, as well as an insatiable desire for attaining the “good things in life.” As Baby Boomers matured, they too sought to give their children an easier life—and so the cycle continued throughout the decades, with each successive generation feeling entitled to the best things in life, regardless of whether they could afford it.
Added to these factors was the longest period of unparalleled prosperity in modern history. Successive generations born after World War II had never known hardship. They had never known anything other than good times. The standard of living in Western countries rose to heights never before experienced.
Relentless advertising, combined with prosperity and permissive parenting, gave rise to generations that were used to getting whatever they wanted—a culture obsessed with what others had. It also produced a set of values that deemed material possessions and status as more important than character. Thriftiness, hard work, integrity, fiscal responsibility and other values were abandoned. Spurred on by advertising, celebrities, game shows, music videos, reality television, and the media at large, many became infected with the unending desire to obtain.
By the 21st century, the affluenza virus spread even further. For example, in 2003, the amount Americans owed on credit card bills totaled approximately $2 trillion, a staggering $18,654 per household. The culture of “buy now and forget about tomorrow” was well entrenched.
Even the federal government has been infected. America’s national debt has reached an astronomical $11 trillion, equating to $36,000 for every man, woman and child. The hope of ever repaying it is long gone, yet the government continues to overspend, leaving the burden to future generations. The situation throughout other Western nations is similar: consumers, businesses and governments loaded with compounding levels of debt.
The mood of excess is everywhere. In the book Stop Me Because I Can’t Stop Myself, a woman described how she shopped online six to eight hours a day, ending up $80,000 in debt. She eventually lost her job, got divorced and, finally in desperation, checked herself into a psychiatric institution after saying, “Shopping ruined my family.” She is not alone in her plight; the motto “shop till you drop” is a mantra for our time.
The extravagance even extends to such basics as food. For example, Americans buy much more food than they consume. Whatever is not used is simply thrown away, wasted. A University of Arizona study revealed that the figure included 14 percent of all purchases—a whopping $43 billion worth of food thrown away annually.
Affluenza permeates Western society. People fiercely compete with each other for who has the largest house, the fanciest car, the most exotic vacation spot—even the cutest dog! They envy the notoriety, fame and fortune of public figures, especially celebrities.
This social “virus” particularly affects young adults. Research by American Demographics found that among 18- to 34-year-olds (children of Baby Boomers and Generation X), 23 percent of men and 26 percent of women confessed to “always or frequently” coveting their neighbors’ goods. Sixty percent of the same age group confirmed they were jealous of “celebrities or public figures,” whose lifestyles television shows glamorize. Not surprisingly, money is the item most coveted among this age group.
Truly, as the prophet Jeremiah prophesied about the modern English-speaking nations in our time, “From the least of them even unto the greatest of them everyone is given to covetousness” (6:13).
Even corporations have caught affluenza. Prior to the current economic global crisis, companies attempted to lure top executive talent with contracts worth tens of millions of dollars (some even in the hundreds of millions) and guaranteed bonuses, regardless of performance.
Compensation packages provided “golden parachutes”—large sums of guaranteed money if a poorly performing executive was fired. No expense was spared: stock options, corporate jets, palatial homes, condominiums, all-expense paid vacations, exclusive country club memberships, and other lucrative perks. In many cases, CEOs received compensation thousands of times larger than other employees in the company.
Attempting to satisfy ceaseless shareholder demands for bigger profits, companies abandoned the principles of prudent investing, and engaged in junk bonds, derivatives, financial futures and other high-risk investments. This eventually led to the downfall of several corporations.
Affluenza permeates “Black Friday”: A crowd of shoppers hunt for bargains at Macy’s in New York City (Nov. 28, 2008). The day after Thanksgiving, often referred to as “Black Friday,” is looked at as an indicator of the holiday shopping season’s health and the possible demise of retailers on the brink.Source: Yana Paskova/Getty Images
Nowhere has this been truer than in the banking industry. Banks, seeking higher profits, abandoned prudent lending practices, and lent to those who were unqualified for mortgages (subprime customers). These included borrowers without jobs, low (and in some cases, no) incomes and no assets. In several cases, subprime customers were not even required to make a down payment to qualify. Banks then passed the risk of these loans to third-party investors through a process known as “securitization.” Affluenza-infected borrowers took the easy money as a way to get the type of house they could not previously afford.
As long as the economy stayed strong, house prices increased and interest rates stayed low; the game held up.
However, prices fell in the wake of a housing glut. The economy slowed. Interest rates rose. Millions of homeowners defaulted on their mortgages—leaving investors and banks with huge losses.
Another practice among companies seeking high investment returns, investing in “credit default swaps,” insurance policies on loans in which the investor (insurer) is held liable for payments if a borrower defaults. Many of these were linked to the loans in “securitization,” in which institutions seeking protection from default on mortgages spread the risk to other parties through credit default swaps. When the subprime mortgage bubble imploded, suddenly there were numerous claims on these insurance policies. Investors were responsible for billions of dollars in claims. According to experts, credit default swaps were responsible for bringing down Bear Stearns, AIG and other financial giants. Famed investor Warren Buffett referred to them as “financial weapons of mass destruction.”
Risky practices, particularly in the banking sector, have led to the global financial crisis. It is believed that banks are hoarding cash in expectation of payouts from $200 billion to $1 trillion. Unless the situation changes, Western governments will have to continue bailing out credit default swap contract holders. Unless the government regulators rein them in, credit default swaps may well continue to deepen the current economic recession and prevent a recovery. Dicey investments and uncontrolled speculating in the financial markets have brought multiple economies to the brink of disaster.
Throughout history, affluenza has infected great empires to one degree or another. To find examples, you need look no further than the Bible. The first recorded worldwide epidemic occurred millions of years ago: the archangel Lucifer and one third of all angels became infected by the “virus.” Desiring to outdo God, Lucifer sowed discontent among his followers, leading them to rebel against their Maker. Along with his cohorts, Lucifer tried to overthrow God, but failed—and was sent back to the earth (Isa. 14:12-15).
Millions of years later, affluenza led Adam and Eve to sin—to transgress God’s Law (I John 3:4). Eve listened to the deceptive “advertising” of the serpent (Satan the devil, formerly Lucifer), who promoted the “forbidden fruit.” “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat, and gave also to her husband” (Gen. 3:1-6).
Another Bible example is King Saul of Israel, whom God stripped of his position and removed his descendants from the royal line for his covetousness and disobedience (I Sam. 15:1-28).
Perhaps the greatest example of affluenza is King Solomon, who enjoyed a life of excess and splendor unlike any other in history. He directed great public works projects, built palatial houses, planted lush vineyards and gardens, had large numbers of servants, generated tremendous riches—so much that gold and silver were as abundant as stones in Jerusalem in his day—and, to top it off, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Whatever he wanted, he got.
Yet Solomon, the richest and wisest man who ever lived, wrote, “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc. 2:11).
Despite his great wealth and accomplishments, Solomon felt empty, unsatisfied. As with so many, affluenza does not satisfy. The more one has, the more one wants.
With such a pervasive influence, how can you know whether you have affluenza? Ask yourself the following questions:
• Do you frequently buy things you do not really need?
• When shopping, are you unable to control how much you spend?
• Do you envy the lifestyles of the rich and famous?
• Do you feel bad when your neighbors have things you do not?
• Do you measure yourself by what others have?
• Do you ever use shopping as a means of escape?
• Do you use your possessions to impress others?
• Do you compare your possessions with what your peers have? If so, do you experience a feeling of superiority?
• Do you speak often about the things you want?
• Do you find yourself complaining about the things you want, but cannot afford?
• Do you think of spending your money more often than saving it?
• Do you often think your life would be happier if you had more money and possessions?
If you find yourself answering yes to any of the above, you may well be infected.
Psychologist Oliver James, in his book The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, said that “selfish capitalism” (affluenza) is literally making us sick. He added that the emergence of selfish capitalism in the late 1970s has led to an increase in mental illness. The World Health Organisation, along with nationally representative studies in the United States, Britain and Australia, show that incidences of mental illness have almost doubled between the 1980s and the turn of the 21st century—to the point that an average of 23 percent of Americans, Britons, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians suffered from it in 2007 (The Guardian).
Affluenza leads to worry, anxiety, depression and possibly, if left unchecked, mental illness. Why?
The reason is that it creates unrealistic expectations that cannot be met. Those affected end up blaming themselves, feeling like failures. With their self-esteem battered, they work even harder to attain their unreachable goals, and eventually end up anxious, nervous, sad, and depressed.
Ultimately, basing one’s values on material success leads to an unsatisfied, unfulfilled life: “He that loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loves abundance with increase” (Ecc. 5:10). Jesus Christ warned, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness, for a man’s life consists not of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15).
There are only two ways of life.
One is the way of striving to acquire as many possessions as possible. Those infected by the pervasive social “virus” live this way—of competition, vanity, jealousy, envy, lust and greed. In short, affluenza is the way of get, which ultimately leads to empty, discontented lives. Sadly, the vast majority of the world’s nearly 7 billion people live this way.
On the other hand, there is another way of life—of caring, sharing, cooperating, looking out for one’s fellow man—the way of give, leading to happy, successful, productive lives, full of achievement and joy.
To learn how, read our article “You Can Live the Abundant Life!”