Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a term used by critics of consumerism. Sources define this term as a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more. It is also defined as the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to “keep up with the Joneses”. It is an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of the American Dream, or an unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
Proponents of the term consider the costs of prizing material wealth vastly outweigh the benefits. They claim those who become wealthy will find the economic success leaving them unfulfilled and hungry for more wealth. 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.
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 the manipulative methods used by the advertising industry, James relates the stimulation of artificial needs to the rise in affluenza.
James also believes that higher rates of mental disorders are the consequence of excessive wealth-seeking in consumerist nations. He cites World Health Organization data that English-speaking nations have twice as much mental illness as mainland Europe. James defines affluenza as placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances and fame, and this becomes the rationale behind the increasing mental illness. 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.
Affluenza is considered to be most present in the United States, where the culture encourages its citizens to measure their worth by financial success and material possessions. Mainstream media outlets, such as television broadcasts, tend to demonstrate how pervasive the idea has become, and by the same token the same media outlets reinforce the values to the viewers.
The term affluenza was popularized in the United States by the 1997 documentary of the same name from KCTS and Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting. John de Graaf, producer of the documentary, also co-authored a book with the same title.