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Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a term used by critics of consumerism. The book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic defines it 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 inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege, notably in the case of Ethan Couch.
British psychologist Oliver James asserts that there is a correlation between the increasing nature 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 relates 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.
James also believes that higher rates of mental disorders are the consequence of excessive wealth-seeking in consumerist nations. In a graph created from multiple data sources, James plots "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 defines affluenza as 'placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame', and this becomes the rationale behind the increasing mental illness in English-speaking societies. He explains 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 asserts 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' 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?" (p vii). They argue that affluenza causes over-consumption, "luxury fever," consumer debt, overwork, waste, and harm to the environment. These pressures lead to "psychological disorders, alienation and distress" (p 179), causing people to "self-medicate with mood-altering drugs and excessive alcohol consumption" (p 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 drunk driving and killing four pedestrians and injuring 11 after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza (though in this case, the lawyer used the term 'affluenza' to mean that Couch was unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of his financial privilege) and needed rehabilitation, and not prison. The defendant was witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in a Ford F-350 stolen from his father, speeding (70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone), and had a blood alcohol content of .24%, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas, when he was tested 3 hours after the accident. Traces of Valium were also in his system. G. Dick Miller, a psychologist hired as an expert by the defense, testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. The rehabilitation facility near Wichita Falls, Texas that the teen will be attending will cost roughly $700 a day, however Couch will be paying only a portion of that. 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."
The trademark for the word "AFFLUENZA" is currently held by B.I.M. Imaging.
1. The mean prevalences of emotional distress for the six English-speaking nations combined is 21.6%. The mean for the other nations, mainland Western Europe plus Japan, is 11.5%.
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