January 10, 2007 at 5:05 pm #20365
This is about whether you are chasing after your OWN goals in life or chasing after goals set for you by society. Not exactly a revolutionary question, but well put here, with nice insights into how culture shapes what we chase after. -Michael
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM AFFLUENZA?
By Elizabeth Grice
January 8, 2007
If Oliver James is suffering from what he calls “affluenza” — a depressive
middle-class sickness brought on by social and material envy — then he has
the symptoms well under control.
It is true that his moon-pale face is a little lugubrious, and the
black-rimmed specs and black hair growing ever further back on his academic
forehead give him a serious air, but he is essentially quite cheerful and
apparently sane. His strange jumper, with hearts on the elbow patches, does
not suggest an obsessive follower of fashion. And the place he had chosen to
spend the new year with friends — St Mawes, towards the extremity of
Cornwall — is not a resort that social climbers or status-seekers would be
seen dead in at this time of year.
“Nearly all of us want bigger and better,” he says. “Houses, breast
implants, penis extensions, televisions, cars. We define our lives through
earnings, possessions, appearances, celebrity, and it’s making us more
miserable than ever before. The bad news is that a quarter of British people
have been mentally ill in the last 12 months and another quarter have been
on the verge. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Sea spray mottles the windows of the hotel lounge, where his long body is
hunched over a cappuccino and soon the grey waves are crashing over the sea
wall towards us, but the psychologist hardly notices. He is babbling like a
man just released about the relief of having finished his latest examination
of human behaviour.
“I will never do it again,” he says furiously. “I will never work that hard
in my life.” His study of why the middle classes in the English-speaking
world are in such an emotional mess, despite being wealthier and more
comfortable, took him on a “mind tour” of seven countries in three months,
interviewing people all day and writing their case studies into the night.
The research made him scornful and despairing of the way the over-mortgaged,
aspirational middle classes shackle themselves to unfulfilling jobs, working
excessively long hours and cutting themselves off from proper relationships
— yet here he was, shut up in a Moscow hotel room, working like slave while
his wife, Clare, and young daughter, who accompanied him on the first leg of
his odyssey, were back home. “It was the irony of ironies. ‘What am I doing
this for?’ I asked myself. ‘Do I want to be famous? Do I want to be rich?
Doctor, heal thyself.’ ”
James’s contention is that we confuse what we want with what we need and we
have become obsessed with measuring ourselves and others through “the
distorted lens of affluenza values” — essentially, keeping up with the
The affluenza virus is a set of phoney values that increases our
vulnerability to emotional disorders and James, at the outset, imagined
himself as some itinerant Marie Curie, returning triumphantly from his
global tour with phials of vaccine to immunise a grateful nation against
In fact, he returned with an unwieldy travelogue running to hundreds of
thousands of words that had to be rewritten when a friend pointed out that
it was sexist, biased, jingoistic and much too long. He had given in, he
admits, to that side of his personality that is “bombastic, one-sided and
rather dogmatic”, so he painfully jettisoned “vast amounts of science” and
nine-tenths of the case histories, producing Affluenza: How to be Successful
and Stay Sane, an eloquent polemic at a mere 382 pages.
So why did he write it, if not to be rich and famous and the envy of his
peers? Well, he says, suspiciously aware of his own worth, the publisher’s
advance was much less than he had hoped and he has “scraped a living” on
roughly the pay of a university lecturer these past three years, so it can’t
have been for the money.
He postulates a few glib answers about wanting to grapple with the bigger
picture, discovering the causes of human behaviour, but really, when a book
idea takes him over he is an out-of-control workaholic. “There seems to be
an automatic programme that clicks on from time to time. I get locked into
it and nothing else matters.”
We go through his 16-point questionnaire designed to identify those infected
with affluenza. No, he is not motivated by money. No, he does not want to be
a famous face and has declined several television roles. He clings to
moth-eaten jumpers. His receding hairline is not an issue. He likes things
for their aesthetic value rather than because other people have them. His
favourite possession is a large double bed he bought 20 years ago from Simon
Horn Furniture. So far, so good.
But then we touch on competition. As a pugilistic boy, he was fiercely
competitive in sport and not a very good team player. Competitiveness
usually sticks. He once launched into an irrational attack on Anthony Clare,
a professional competitor, on the Today programme.
“It was inappropriate and unprofessional and I regret it,” he says. And now?
“I suppose I would feel threatened if someone started barging in on what I
regard as my turf.” Two of his previous popular psychology books — Britain
on the Couch and They F*** You Up — were bestsellers. So for all the
self-deprecation about its genesis, there is a lot hanging on this one.
It is every psychologist’s conceit that he is as messed up as the people he
analyses, if not more so, and James is as superficially confessional as the
next shrink. He admits to having disturbingly regular dreams about property.
In the early stages of affluenza, he and his wife agonised about whether to
increase their mortgage to build an extension to their former home in
London. It was a three-bedroom house in Shepherd’s Bush. They had two
children. What was the problem?
“One day, pretty much out of the blue, the answer came to my wife: do
nothing. It was a revelation. The minute she said it, we both had a great
sense of relief. There were things we wanted to do, but we needed to do none
Later, they moved to a former council house in the Cotswolds. “I’m not
trying to speak from a position of holier-than-thou puritanical supremacy at
all,” he insists. “I am in the s**t along with everyone else. I’ve got the
same worries but, having seen so many people obsessed with this rubbish, I
am not as bad as I was.”
He blames “selfish capitalism” for the parlous state of our mental health —
with America to blame for the greed, envy and ennui that is at the rotten
core of it. “Americanisation is poisonous,” he says. “But I am glad to say
it has not taken root everywhere, by any means.” In Russia, he found a
heightened awareness of beauty and art, and a love of serious conversation
and intellectual debate. He also found gorgeous, naturally sexy women, quite
different from the Sex and the City tarty individuals he encountered in New
“However beautiful the woman, none seemed to want beauty to distract me from
communicating with them as a person,” he says somewhat prissily, “or to use
it to impress or control me.” In China, he discovered a positive attitude to
life and the sort of stoicism that used to be the preserve of the British.
The Danes, he found, were the least materialistic people he interrogated.
And the women were not hung up about their looks, either.
In English-speaking countries it is the creeping sameness that distresses
him. “Worst of all is the feeling of homogeneity. There is little room for
eccentricity, for individuality. Individuality has been replaced by
consumerism. People have confused the idea that they are expressing
themselves as individuals with the idea of purchasing goods and services.”
But in Britain, he believes, all is not lost. “We still have some great
virtues you don’t find in other countries; a fantastic sense of humour,
understatement, a distrust of show-offs — basically, we don’t like Richard
Branson — our scepticism and logical positivist traditions: we want to see
the evidence with our own eyes. New Labour are a long way from understanding
the list of virtues: they have embraced Americanisation.”
The anti-affluenza vaccines, he says, aren’t all that complicated. “I would
say, go back to being British and stop being American. Stop thinking you
have got to have more and start concentrating on getting on with your real
life, your personal relationships, work that interests you, rather than work
motivated by greed.”
He says he isn’t telling people how to be happy, just how to be more real.
“I regard happiness as chimeric and temporary, akin to pleasure, and I tend
to agree with the saying ‘we were not put on this earth to be happy’. My
focus is on why we are so f*****up, not with dangling a false promise of the
possibility of happiness.” It is more about being, he says, not having.
James is 53, the son of famously erratic and contradictory parents. His
father was a psychoanalyst, analysed by no less a figure than Freud’s
daughter, Anna, and his mother was a psychiatric social worker. Perhaps
because he came to fatherhood late, he is almost evangelical about the value
of continuity in a young child’s life and of taking an active part in the
upbringing of his own — Olive, aged four, and Louis, two.
In They F*** You Up, he claimed that the way children were cared for in
early childhood, rather than their genes, is the decisive influence on the
way they turn out. Now, he has discovered, they are an equally decisive
influence on how their parents turn out. His children, he believes, make him
a more authentic person than he used to be. And authenticity (not to be
confused with mere sincerity) is a big anti-affluenza vaccine, up there with
vivaciousness (not hyperactivity) and playfulness (as opposed to mere
OK, he admits, he is probably “as boring and earnest as I ever was” but, as
a father, he’s bound to be more real than the virus-infected marketing
types, Machiavellians and chameleons who, he notes, don’t spend very much
time with their children.
“There is almost a religiosity about the truthfulness of children,” he says.
“Their bell rings true. It can’t but rub off on you, unless you are
hopelessly trapped in a bogus personality. You almost feel that until you
have children, and close contact caring for them, that you’ve been living a
virtual life. It makes you honest, legal and decent in a way that nothing
else can. What makes me happiest,” he says, “is telling my daughter her
bedtime story, when I manage to make one up that really makes her laugh, and
the gradual shift in her breathing from short to long breaths as she drifts
off into the land of nod.”
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