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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