In this assembly Brian Radcliffe invites students to consider the possibility that increased wealth may not lead to increased happiness
Doctor: Next patient, please.
Patient: Doctor, doctor, I’m afraid I’m not feeling at all well.
Doctor: Could you please describe your symptoms to me?
Patient: I get very anxious and it’s making me feel depressed.
Doctor: What do you feel anxious about?
Patient: I’m anxious because I can’t keep up with other people. They all have better phones and games systems and sports gear and go on better holidays and wear more expensive clothes. I’m so much worse off than them. I spend all my time wishing I had what they have. It’s so depressing. What’s wrong with me?
Doctor: I think I can give you a diagnosis of your condition quite easily. I believe you’re suffering from an acute attack of affluenza.
Patient: Oh dear!
Leader: (To the audience) Affluenza. It sounds very serious, doesn’t it? It’s a term that’s been applied by social scientists to a phenomenon they’ve observed in societies across the developed world. (‘The wealthier a country is, the more miserable it becomes’, The Observer 14/03/10) The theory goes like this: there is a certain economic standard of living a country needs to reach in order to provide a sense of well-being for all who live there. It is one in which its population does not go hungry, and enjoys shelter, security, mobility and effective communications. Life is comfortable and there is enough wealth to meet everyday needs.
However, when wealth accumulation grows beyond this reasonable standard, consumption shifts to buying status symbols. For adults these might be expensive cars, designer clothes and jewellery. For teenagers the list is likely to include items such as those voiced by our patient. These expensive purchases rarely do the job better than more economical models, but they are regarded as status symbols. You can only have them if you can afford them. They set the person who has them apart from the “general riff-raff”. Life is good if you own a status symbol. It boosts your self-image, improves your sense of well-being and can make you feel extremely contented with life. Wealth, for the privileged few, definitely can buy you a certain measure of happiness.
But how does this make everybody else, people like you and me, feel?
First, it makes us feel worse-off when we see one of our friends with a phone, guitar or pair of shoes we can’t afford. We wish we also had these same status symbols but know we probably never will. The shine is also taken off the possessions we already have that we’d previously been very content with. We feel like second-class citizens.
Second, status symbols have a divisive effect. We become jealous of those who can afford them and this can affect the closeness of our relationship with them. It’s there in the background every time we meet.
Finally, status symbols can make us more inward-looking. Our energy becomes directed towards gaining for ourselves what we don’t have rather than looking outwards to help those in need around us. Affluenza damages trust, service and a sense of community. Affluenza causes discontent, frustration and selfishness.
Patient: Oh, doctor. I’m so frightened. Is this a terminal disease? Can a cure be found or must I remain anxious and depressed forever?
Doctor: It’s hard to say. In the long term it depends on a change of attitude, and attitudes are very difficult to change. Imagine trying to persuade your mum not to spend her money on a designer dress but to buy one from Tesco’s instead, or your dad to buy a Skoda rather than the Mercedes he can afford. Imagine you yourself keeping your mobile phone until it breaks down from long use rather than upgrading to the latest model with all the apps, or waiting until your clothes wore out rather than immediately getting the latest fashion. Can you imagine it? I can’t, if I’m realistic.
Patient: So that’s it then? I’m stuck with it.
Doctor: Actually, that may not be the case. This might be one that the Government can help solve.
Patient: Why? Are they going to take away our wealth?
Doctor: In a manner of speaking that may be so. Whoever’s in charge after the next election will need to introduce what’s referred to as “national belt-tightening”. Wage increases will be tiny, taxes are likely to rise, as will interest rates. We’ll all find we have less to spend on treats. That’s what the experts are saying.
Patient: That sounds like more bad news. I want to feel good about myself. Can’t you give me one piece of practical advice?
Doctor: May I make one suggestion then? I suggest you change your point of view.
Patient: My point of view? What do you mean?
Doctor: Rather than looking up all the time, try looking down for a change.
(Patient mimes looking up then looking down)
Patient: That’s interesting. I’d never really thought that there might be some people who are worse off than me. Do you think they might value a bit of encouragement and friendship?
Doctor: I think the recovery might just be beginning.
Next patient, please.
Leader: It’s quite true: money can buy you some measure of happiness. It’s a great feeling to go out and spend some money on a treat for yourself. In our developed country, many of us enjoy that privilege, and there’s nothing inherently wrong there. But it may not last, if the politicians are right. So let’s also make sure our point of view is right.
Meanwhile, think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.
Dear GodMay I enjoy the benefits of wealth and still keep a point of view that looks down as well as up.May I take pleasure for myself and also look out for the needs of others.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010
About the author: Brian Radcliffe