“Affluenza” and the Poor Little Rich Kid Syndrome

Have you ever heard of the term, “affluenza”? At the rate we’re going, it may soon be a new diagnostic category espoused by the American Psychiatric Association. Read on …

It is not entirely clear who invented the term Affluenza. A documentary with that title appeared on American television and the makers then wrote a book with the title. John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor then wrote a book in 2001 with the subtitle: The All-Consuming Epidemic. It covers the symptoms, causes and treatment of Affluenza.

They defined affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more”. They ended the book with an ironic observation that affluenza is the one disease we can cause by spending less money not more.

In his book “Affluenza,” Oliver James, a British clinical psychologist proposed the following theory: increasing affluence in a society, particularly where it is characterised by inequality leads to an increase in unhappiness.

The thesis is modern capitalism makes money out of misery. It encourages materialism but leaves a psychic void. The increasing emotional stress of people in the West is a response to the sick, unequal, and acquisitive societies. Just as “dieting makes you fat” so “retail therapy makes you sad.” Affluenza is a “rich persons disease”; a corruption of the American dream. [This quote is from Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., writing at psychologytoday.com 8/28/14]

Actually, it’s not money or wealth that causes unhappiness. Unhappiness afflicts wealthy and non-wealthy people; just as happiness can be found in both wealthy and non-wealthy people.

To claim or assume that all wealthy people are miserable and unhappy is to engage in stereotype and prejudice; it’s an unfounded and unwarranted generalization.

Unhappiness comes from many sources, but two very common ones, in my experience, are: (1) the entitlement mentality; and (2) unearned guilt.

By the “entitlement mentality,” I mean a sense that you’re entitled to things that you didn’t really earn. A young person born into wealth — or middle-class economic comfort, where most of life’s pleasures come automatically, without any effort — might make the error of assuming that he or she created all that comfort. Actually, that’s not true. Somebody else did. Either one of the parents did, or the money was created by a combination of family members generations ago, along with wise investments over time. Whatever the origin of the wealth, it’s the product of somebody else’s thoughts, actions and efforts.

The reasonable attitude for a young person to develop in this situation — and one that should be fostered by the parents — is, “I didn’t create this wealth, and I will have to learn how to be productive in my own life.” This almost never happens. What usually happens is the parents shower the best of everything on their growing child, and then wonder why that child (once a young adult) feels entitled to all that wealth. But if the child is never sent the message that, “We choose to share this with you, and we want to do so; but you also have to earn it, by being productive, honest, virtuous, etc.” — well, then, how can you expect the child to learn the attitude you never encouraged? Some young adults will figure out the reasonable, independent and non-entitled attitude on their own; but this almost never happens, either.

The principle is the same whether we’re talking about wealthy kids or the more common example of middle class kids.

The entitlement mentality is unfair to the parents, but it’s actually worse for the child-turned-young-adult. This is particularly true in middle class families, where young people may grow up feeling entitled to more well-being and wealth than even the parents (buried in debt) ever had themselves.

The entitlement mentality is irrational and unhealthy because it disconnects a person — to whatever extent — from the facts of reality. The young person, in the middle class case, goes into the world expecting those middle class comforts as automatic, because that’s how he or she always received them — not just in infancy and childhood, but into adolescence and young adulthood as well.

As for the wealthy young adult, there’s plenty of money to live on for the rest of his or her life. And if money is all that’s required for happiness, then that should be the end of the story.

But obviously, money is not all that’s required for happiness. Productive effort and use of one’s mind are essential for everyone’s self-esteem. If you’re in a situation where productive use of your mind is constantly focused on sheer survival, then at least your life’s mission and purpose are clear. The wealthy young person who has no focus with which to engage his or her mind is lost, adrift, and anxious — resulting in the “bratty” or otherwise obnoxious behavior you will often observe in wealthy people who didn’t create their own wealth. (People who are serene and confident about themselves and life are not bratty and obnoxious.)

None of this is to suggest that government should therefore seize all, or even some, of private wealth owned by a family. I’m not making the case for socialism here. People are morally entitled to their private property, regardless of how psychologically serene and/or morally strong they might or might not be.

I am making the case that everyone needs to learn objectively productive, as well as personally satisfying, ways to engage his or her mind, regardless of financial status. Without that, there won’t be sufficient self-esteem; and without self-esteem, a person cannot be sustainably happy.

Another major cause of unhappiness is unearned guilt. Unearned guilt refers to feelings of personal responsibility for something that isn’t your fault. It’s the other side of the erroneous entitlement “coin.”

Just as it’s an error for a young person to feel entitled to wealth he or she did not create, it’s likewise an error to feel guilty for it. The fact that your parents are better off than most other kids’ parents, economically, is not your fault. And the mere fact of that economic difference does not make others’ lives any better or worse. You could become instantly poor tomorrow, and this won’t improve their situation at all.

The concept “affluenza” rests on the assumption that wealth is the cause of psychological problems. Not so. Erroneous ideas and self-defeating actions (usually subconscious, and accumulated over time) are the underlying causes of psychological and personal problems. These problems are not exclusive to any one economic group; nor are they inevitable in any one circumstance.

I’m used to politicians and social science intellectuals using every opportunity they can to blast capitalism, wealth and high human standards. But I wish the field of psychology could at least start to get some grip on what the truth really is.

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