Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a term used by critics of consumerism. It is thought to have been first used in 1954, but it gained legs as a concept with a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name and the subsequent book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001, revised in 2005, 2014). These works define affluenza as "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more". The term "affluenza" has also been used to refer to an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege, such as in the case of Ethan Couch.
In 2007, British psychologist Oliver James asserted that there was a correlation between the increasing occurrence of affluenza and the resulting increase in material inequality: the more unequal a society, the greater the unhappiness of its citizens. Referring to Vance Packard's thesis The Hidden Persuaders on the manipulative methods used by the advertising industry, James related the stimulation of artificial needs to the rise in affluenza. To highlight the spread of affluenza in societies with varied levels of inequality, James interviewed people in several cities including Sydney, Singapore, Auckland, Moscow, Shanghai, Copenhagen and New York.
In 2008 James wrote that higher rates of mental disorders were the consequence of excessive wealth-seeking in consumerist nations. In a graph created from multiple data sources, James plotted "Prevalence of any emotional distress" and "Income inequality", attempting to show that English-speaking nations have nearly twice as much emotional distress as mainland Europe and Japan: 21.6 percent vs 11.5 percent. James defined affluenza as "placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame", which was the rationale behind the increasing mental illness in English-speaking societies. He explained the greater incidence of affluenza as the result of 'selfish capitalism', the market liberal political governance found in English-speaking nations as compared to the less selfish capitalism pursued in mainland Europe. James asserted that societies can remove the negative consumerist effects by pursuing real needs over perceived wants, and by defining themselves as having value independent of their material possessions.
Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss's book, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, poses the question: "If the economy has been doing so well, why are we not becoming happier?":vii They argue that affluenza causes overconsumption, "luxury fever", consumer debt, overwork, waste, and harm to the environment. These pressures lead to "psychological disorders, alienation and distress",:179 causing people to "self-medicate with mood-altering drugs and excessive alcohol consumption".:180
They note that a number of Australians have reacted by "downshifting"—they decided to "reduce their incomes and place family, friends and contentment above money in determining their life goals". Their critique leads them to identify the need for an "alternative political philosophy", and the book concludes with a "political manifesto for wellbeing".
In December 2013, State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced a North Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, to 10 years' probation for driving under the influence and killing four pedestrians and injuring 11 after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison. The lawyers had argued that Couch was unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of his financial privilege. The defendant had been witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in a Ford F-350 "stolen" from his father, and speeding at 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) in a 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) zone. Couch was also driving while under the influence of alcohol (with a blood alcohol content of 0.24%, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas) and the tranquilizer Valium. At a February 5, 2014, hearing, Eric Boyles—whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash—said, "Had he not had money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify, and also offer to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different." In April 2016, a judge sentenced Ethan Couch to 720 days in jail after he violated his probation.
1. The mean prevalence of emotional distress for the six English-speaking nations combined was 21.6%. The mean for the other nations, mainland Western Europe plus Japan, was 11.5%.
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