There is a disease that has affected nearly all of American society. It leads to chronic unhappiness; it ruins our financial markets; it handicaps our children; it ruins our planet. Can it be cured in time?
This disease is afflueza:
affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more. -wikipedia
People in America have more stuff than most any other society in history. We live like the kings of old in our giant castles with 3-car garages, pools and full-service kitchens. To be poor in America means to not have a TV in every room of the house.
My kids actually share a room because we only have three bedrooms for a family of five. Thirty years ago this would have been the norm. Now it’s like you’re committing a form of child abuse if each kid does not get their own.
But we pay a heavy price for all of this affluence. In order to pay for all of this stuff, we have to work more and more. Americans work more than nearly any other country in order to maintain their standard of living and it brings us no more happiness. And the worst part is that the standard keeps rising. Just when you buy that nice new boat, you see that your neighbor has a bigger one. Where does it end?
A shocking takeaway from the book Richistan (which chronicles the lives of the new rich) was that even at that level of billionaires they are not satisfied and get stressed out and depressed (they even set up high net worth support groups).
One of the funnier stories from the book is about a couple of tech billionaires fighting it out to have the biggest boats. Each kept building bigger ones until their boats were too big to fit under bridges so they couldn’t even sail them.
Even well below the level of billionaires there are sad examples of the scourge of affluence. When I was consulting at a now defunct investment bank, there was a guy who really hated his job and would literally get ulcers from putting up with the stress of it. But he knew that he would not make nearly as much at any other job and he had just bought a nice big new house so he was trapped by those golden handcuffs.
The examples go even deeper though. All of this working to maintain a standard of living means more kids growing up with parents that are out of the picture or too stressed after a day of work to be involved in their lives.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love working and I’m a die-hard capitalist. I’m all for finding a job that you love and committing to it with all your energy. I’m just saying that it has to be more about the work rather than the money or possessions.
Possessions and the chasing of them has ripped apart many families whether due to working too much or getting mired in credit card debt. When most people retire, they will not have enough to live on. This is an issue not only at a personal level, but at a national level and international as well.
You could argue that our current financial crises is due to people overspending on mortgages and banks over lending. And the amount of money that the government is spending to fix it is only putting us more in debt and leaving a larger burden on our children and grandchildren.
Also, we are exporting our affluenza. As other countries like India and China rise in wealth, they want the American lifestyle which includes the boats and 3-car garages. As all of these countries buy new cars and houses it creates a global demand and shortage of oil and further taxes the planet with industrialization. This macro trend is well chronicled in Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat and Crowded.
Is there any escape from the scourge of affluenza or are we doomed to unhappiness?
Luckily, there are small groups, and books that are beginning to arise and sound the alarm. Books like Your Money or Your Life are a great start for the affluenza affected.
The book is about looking at your possessions and calculating how much of your life you had to spend in order to get and maintain them. It’s an eye-opening exercise and will definitely make you wonder if your life’s time is worth all of this stuff. It really helps you to understand how possessions can often be more of a burden than anything else.
And the author of the book really lived the life he advocated. He was a successful wall street analyst earning a six-figure salary when he decided to simplify his life, retire at 31 and live on 7K per year for the rest of his life. He spent his time on humanitarian efforts, writing this book, and helping to heal others of afflueza.
Along with this book, there are voluntary simplicity movements popping up to teach people that it’s not stuff that makes us happy, but having control of our time and doing something meaningful with our lives.
Only time will tell whether Americans can overcome affluenza, but a positive side of the current financial meltdown may be a wake up call that money can always be made or lost, but time once spent can never be regained.
Live simply so that others may simply live Mahatma Gandhi