Afflicted by affluenza

1st December 2006 at 00:00
What will enrich your life the most this Christmas: a skydiving experience or a high-definition digital plasma 60-inch TV? Oliver James

Erich Fromm posed modern man's dilemma as "to have or to be?". With Christmas lurching into view, to the average teacher this is probably more a case of "to sink or to swim". But regarding what presents to give or receive, one study suggests what we should be asking is "to do or to have?"

It explored satisfaction with the way people had spent their money after purchasing experiences, such as white-water rafting or massages, as opposed to acquiring material possessions, such as clothes or gizmos.

Unsurprisingly, experience won hands down.

The message is that, while your better half's face might not shine with joy on being given a voucher for yoga classes rather than a cashmere jersey, they will bless Santa for his wisdom a few months down the line. The reason why is to be found in Tim Kasser's book The High Price of Materialism (a material present, admittedly, but one I recommend you give to yourself nonetheless).

He and his colleagues have measured the extent to which people place a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame in samples from 14 different nations.

The strongly materialistic (or in my parlance, people afflicted by the affluenza virus) were significantly more at risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder (febrile moods, "me, me, me"

attention-seeking, flakiness): affluenza is a major cause of mental illness. The virus-infected conflate their wants with their needs. Needs are fundamental and universal, such as for security, intimacy, feeling effective and authenticity. Wants are artificially confected urges created by Selfish Capitalism (Blatcherism, neo-conservatism) to make fat cats rich, stimulated by advertisers and the "lifestyle" junk between them that passes for serious content on TV and in newspapers.

To some extent, nearly all of us have the virus. Who does not say they need a coffee or to do up the kitchen, when they mean want? Only a moment's thought shows that your core needs will not be met by making these purchases and equally obviously, you only have to think of Aids-infected Africa to realise how relative wants are, compared to the absoluteness of needs: everyone needs to feel loved, only us virus-infected loonies in the English-speaking world believe they need a latte with chocolate topping.

As the bells of Santa's sleigh draw near they are increasingly drowned out by the crescendo of ringing cash registers. In choosing presents, try using this criterion: will it meet a need, or will it satisfy a want?

Oliver James is the author of They F*** You Up: how to survive family life.

His book Affluenza: how to be successful and stay sane, will be published in January.

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