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“Affluenza”—A Modern Epidemic

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“Affluenza”—A Modern Epidemic

An insatiable appetite for material goods has led millions to become dissatisfied with life. What drives this worsening phenomenon?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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As fall turns to winter, the colder weather and time spent cooped up indoors can leave us susceptible to the influenza virus. Marked by a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, fever and sometimes digestive upset, this airborne bug spreads easily. It can take you out of work for a week or more and possibly send you to the hospital.

This change of seasons also fuels another, more insidious virus. It gains its strength the day after Thanksgiving—“Black Friday,” which kicks off the Christmas shopping season. The “affluenza” virus is marked by low self-esteem, depression, a loss of motivation, an inability to delay gratification, and a false sense of entitlement, according to the website The Affluenza Project. It can weigh you down with debt, cause you to default on your credit cards or mortgage, and lead you to file for bankruptcy.

The holiday shopping season also leaves us susceptible to affluenza—the name sociologists use to describe the West’s insatiable appetite for more and more material goods. In 2012, “…a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the four-day weekend starting on Thanksgiving, up 9.2 percent [from the year before], according to a survey of 4,000 shoppers that was conducted by research firm BIGinsight…” The Associated Press reported.

“Americans spent more too: The average holiday shopper spent $423 over the entire weekend, up from $398 [the previous year]. Total spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2011.”

This social “virus,” first described in America, is spreading throughout the prosperous nations of the West and is mutating into a terminal illness. What stokes people’s desire to consume more, despite already having all they need?

Virus of Desire

The term affluenza is derived 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.

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” generally 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 entered an age of prosperity and companies began 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 adults. The emergence of television as the major media bolstered advertising effectiveness and allowed companies to reach multiple millions of people simultaneously with each commercial.

Meanwhile, the Greatest Generation gave birth to “Baby Boomers.” Parents who had suffered hardships during the Depression wanted easier lives for their children. In their desire to give their sons and daughters a better life, parents showered them with possessions. This unintentionally led to a culture of entitlement as well as an insatiable desire to attain more “stuff.”

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 and instant gratification. 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 accustomed to getting whatever they wanted, whenever 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 similar values were abandoned. Spurred on by advertising, celebrities, game shows, music videos, reality television, and the media at large, many became infected with the desire to obtain.

Culture of Greed

By the 21st century, the affluenza virus spread even further. For example, in 2010, the total amount of consumer debt in the U.S. was nearly $2.4 trillion, or $7,800 per American, according to Economy Watch. The culture of “buy now and forget about tomorrow” was well entrenched.

Even the federal government has been infected. America’s national debt is nearly $17 trillion, equating to about $54,000 per citizen. 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 are 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 and ended up $80,000 in debt. She eventually lost her job, got divorced and, finally in desperation, checked herself into a psychiatric institution after admitting, “Shopping ruined my family.”

This lady is not alone in her plight—the motto “shop till you drop” is a mantra for our time.

The extravagance even extends to basics such as food. For example, Americans buy much more food than they consume. Whatever is not used is simply thrown away, wasted. According to Reuters, each American throws away about 400 pounds of food per year. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2010, 33 million tons of food waste ended up in landfills.

Affluenza permeates Western society. People fiercely compete with each other for who has the largest house, fanciest car, and most exotic vacation spot—even the cutest dog! They envy the notoriety, fame and fortune of public figures, especially celebrities.

This social disease 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 are glamorized by television shows. 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).

Nothing New

Throughout history, affluenza has infected great empires to one degree or another. To find examples, you need look no further than the Bible.

Perhaps the greatest human example of affluenza was 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, and generated tremendous riches—so much that gold and silver were as abundant as stones in Jerusalem in his day. To top it off, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Whatever he wanted, he got.

Yet Solomon, the wisest and one of the richest men 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 unsatisfied. As with so many, affluenza does not satisfy. The more one has, the more one wants.

How Much Longer?

In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other prosperous Western nations where affluenza is most prevalent, citizens do not entertain the thought that the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed could quickly and radically change.

Despite persistent unemployment, diminishing job prospects, and other gathering dark clouds, times are still good in the U.S. compared to the rest of the globe. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid funds have not run out, lights stay on, and roads are still drivable. Food stamps are still accepted, free government-subsidized cellphones still ring. Mortgage lending has tightened somewhat, but credit cards are still easy to obtain. Buy-one-get-one sales, rebates and no-interest store financing are taken for granted.

Even a casual student of history, however, knows that current conditions are unsustainable!

In light of this, questions arise: What happens when necessities become scarce? When grocery store shelves become bare, hospitals shut down, social services and safety nets fall apart, how will a shopper infected with the affluenza virus cope?

In a letter to American statesman Adlai Stevenson, author John Steinbeck wrote, “If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick” (“Travels with Charley: In Search of America”).

The Bible backs this up. The apostle Paul wrote in I Timothy: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (6:9).

The United States has lived beyond its means for a long time. Measured against the yardstick of what we can actually afford, we have had too much! We increasingly cannot say “no” to ourselves—whether, “No, I don’t need a third helping of turkey,” or “No, I cannot afford a 3-D television this year.”

Diagnosing Affluenza

To conquer the affluenza virus, though, one must first recognize it within himself and ask why and from where it comes. 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 that yours are better?
  • 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 more complete if you had more money and possessions?

If you find yourself answering yes to any of the above, you may well be infected!

In his book The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, psychologist Oliver James 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 Organization, 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 (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 infected end up blaming themselves and feel like failures. With their self-esteem battered, they strive 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 abundance of the things which he possesses” (Luke 12:15).

Learn to be Content

The Bible, God’s instruction manual for mankind, describes two ways of life—one of give and one of get. Those who live the get way of life suffer the effects of affluenza—competition, vanity, jealousy, envy, lust and greed, all of which ultimately lead to empty, discontented lives.

Yet there is another way that leads to happiness. This way—God’s Way—is the antidote for affluenza. It is a life of caring, sharing, cooperating, looking out for one’s fellow man—the way of give. The Bible spells out exactly how to live this way of life. In Acts 20:35, Paul stated, “I have showed you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

The result of following this instruction is found in the Old Testament: “There is that scatters [gives], and yet increases; and there is that withholds more than is meet, but it tends to poverty” (Prov. 11:24).

God’s Way leads to happy, successful, productive lives, full of achievement and joy. In fact, science has finally caught up with Scripture. Recent studies indicate that the human brain may be “hard-wired for giving.” According to an adaption from Elizabeth Svoboda’s book “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness,” printed in The Wall Street Journal, researchers concluded that giving makes one happier. While studying the brains of subjects using an fMRI, neuroscientist Jordan Grafman discovered, “While we often tend to think of altruism as a kind of sophisticated moral capacity we use to squelch our urges to dominate others, this new evidence suggests that giving is actually inherently rewarding: The brain churns out a pleasurable response when we engage in it.”

Jesus Christ, the Author of the Bible, revealed the life He wants all men to live: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

Living the give way is attainable! To learn more about this principle backed by both science and scripture, read our article You Can Live the Abundant Life!

In addition, you may also want to read The True Origin of Christmas to understand why this holiday came to be and how its origins contribute to the virus of affluenza that characterizes this time of year. 

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