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Oliver James, Affluenza

Affluenza

Do you often compare yourself to others? Would you like to be very wealthy? Do you ever find yourself feeling so jumpy and irritable that relaxation is impossible? These are just a few of the questions with which Oliver James kicks off Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane (not to be confused with Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, or Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss). If you answered “yes” to any of them, chances are you have been infected with what he terms the Virus. 

James, author of the bestselling They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life, visited seven cities worldwide to research the correlation between increasing wealth and rocketing rates of depression and anxiety in the West. In his quest to find out why the English-speaking world is experiencing dramatically higher rates of personal unhappiness than it did 30 years ago (New Zealand is the exception that proves the rule), James interviewed a cross-section of people from Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen, New York, London and Sydney. 

The result is a work of cultural theory with an impressively global outlook. James’ conversational style is as readable as it is informative. His observations on China are particularly surprising, indicating a comparative lack of obsession with money, physical appearance and fame encountered elsewhere, while Denmark is generally presented as a “happier” nation because it has developed a less selfish version of capitalism (although the much lauded public daycare system is shown to be not without its faults). 

James is particularly scathing about the role of schools in producing “good little consumers”. I empathized with the peculiar challenges facing English-speaking girls: as the daughters of a generation of women largely frustrated by educational and professional limitation, today’s teenage girls are being moulded into hyper-achieving perfectionists expected to “do it all”. Many are shown to buckle under the strain of their mothers’ expectations – however well-intentioned – with a shocking number succumbing to depression and eating disorders.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. In part two, James suggests several possible “vaccines” for Virus sufferers. Chapter titles include “Enjoy Motherhood (Not Desperate Housewifery/Househusbandry)” and “Have Positive Volition (Not ‘Think Positive’)”, and he offers refreshingly commonsensical advice that steers the right side of self-help. Seamlessly merging the personal and the political, Affluenza offers an urgent and compelling message for our times.   

Random House, 2007, 301 pp.ISBN: 9780091900106

About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

3 comments on “Oliver James, Affluenza

  1. Mary
    October 21, 2007

    Sounds good, Trilby, a philosophy I agree with in the main. Although I did wonder why he said ‘Enjoy motherhood’ given that he’s a man. Why not ‘enjoy parenthood’?

  2. Jackie
    October 22, 2007

    Sometimes I get tired of the “woes of the rich” attitude, but this one could almost be consifdered as a warning. I am skeptical of the supposed lack of interest in physical appearance in China, as recent new reports noted the rocketing increase in plastic surgery for many Chinese seeking “Western” features. Surely that would indicate the opposite? But I see the author based his conclusions on random interviews, not scientific statistics, so that could explain it.

  3. Trilby
    October 27, 2007

    James does address gender polarization in the home, so “motherhood” is in many ways shorthand for “parenthood” (although a big issue for him is the problem of women feeling the need to achieve “for themselves” outside of the home, ie. in the workplace…and his use of the term “househusbandry” is a nod to the importance of male involvement in domestic affairs).

    Many of the Chinese examples do seem to clash with Western perceptions of Chinese culture (particularly the sections on family life), which makes for an interesting read – even if you’ don’t necessarily agree with James’ conclusions!

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This entry was posted on October 18, 2007 by in Entries by Trilby, Non-fiction: sociology and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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