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Proponents of the term consider that the prizing of endless increases in material wealth may lead to feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction rather than experiences of a 'better life', and that these symptoms may be usefully captured with the metaphor of a disease. They claim some or even many of those who become wealthy will find the economic success leaving them unfulfilled and hungry only for more wealth, finding that they are unable to get pleasure from the things they buy and that increasingly material things may come to dominate their time and thoughts to the detriment of personal relationships and to feelings of happiness. The condition is considered particularly acute amongst those with inherited wealth, who are often said to experience guilt, lack of purpose and dissolute behavior, as well as obsession with holding on to the wealth.
A potential criticism of the idea of affluenza is that it presents subjective social critique as an objective inevitable and debilitating illness.
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 one research study, the results "showed little evidence of the hypothesized level of affluenza in the American working population, with some limited impact of age, gender and education". Meanwhile, writer Tim Cavanaugh points to the difficulty of implementing any sort of reform to the problem of Affluenza: "The genius of the simplicity movement was to shape a political argument (an extraordinarily broad and total critique of commercial exchange) into a spiritual koan (why am I so unfulfilled by my Big Macs and gadgets when simple Bushmen have all the soul nourishment they need?). A vision that broad, however, turns out to be difficult to follow to its logical conclusion. David Wann, president of the Sustainable Futures Society and one of De Graaf's two co-authors on Affluenza, describes the overstimulated economy of the post-Reagan era as a "completely toxic loaf," yet he also supports the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's $500 billion economic stimulus component- both because more than $100 billion of that spending is targeted at environmental-ish initiatives and because "we don't want the whole ship to sink. "
Mentioned in the Castle episode "Under the Gun" as a reason for Castle not to buy a scooter for his daughter Alexis.
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