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** Introduction **
Are you infected with the affluenza virus? That's what I wanted to know when I picked up this book recently. Affluenza, as defined by the author Oliver James, is a 'disease' characterised by obsession with money, possessions, social/physical appearances and fame. If allowed to develop unchecked, it can lead to 'emotional distress', which is James' umbrella term for mental illnesses. The first thing I saw upon opening the book was a short questionnaire. After answering all the questions I was alarmed to learn that yes, I have 'contracted' affluenza. I was surprised, as I don't consider myself that materialistic and I try to live my life as I want without worrying what other people think of me. The second questionnaire, though, revealed that my affluenza had not yet lead to emotional distress. It's a clever ploy, to have these quizzes at the beginning of the book. Although I was a bit cynical about whether I really was affected by 'affluenza' I definitely wanted to read on!
** Structure of the book **
Part One describes the 'virus' and gives us examples from interviews that James conducted with 240 people in several destinations around the world (UK, New York, Shanghai, Copenhagen, Sydney, Hong Kong and Moscow). So we learn about the paranoid American billionaire with no friends, the British trophy wife who wants to kill herself, young girls with eating disorders, people in jobs they hate who are too scared to quit in case people think badly of them... It's not all doom and gloom, since Denmark is portrayed as a more relaxed and less affluenza-driven society, but in the main the mood is pretty grim.
Part Two tells us about the 'vaccines' against affluenza: what we can do to inoculate ourselves against the virus, or cure ourselves if we already have it. Here the examples of unhappy, affluenza-stricken people continue, but each section finishes with some recommendations. There are some extreme stories of obsession with social appearances and fame, such as a 3-year-old Chinese child being 'mind-managed' by his over-ambitious parents to become a global leader (he attends school all day, then has evening classes and attends a children's MBA programme at weekends). We also learn of female students at Oxford University whose sole aim is to get into merchant banking and make money. But there are also more mundane examples of obsession with physical appearances, like competitive new mothers in Sydney desperate to get their figures back as soon as possible. There are also young girls chasing high grades to the point of depression and ordinary UK workers who are slaves to their mortgages.
Some of the vaccines, or solutions, put forward include getting more involved in the community, taking up hobbies that are exciting and absorbing (not self-improving), choosing a job you love over pay or status, and learning to distinguish between your wants and your needs.
Part Three is Oliver James' own personal 'manifesto' on how the world must change if we are to avoid affluenza-driven emotional distress. There are ideas for new government policies, such as paying parents the national average wage to look after their children (thus raising the status of parents rather than forcing them back into the workplace too soon, to the detriment of their babies' upbringing), or banning foreign nationals from having a large stake in the British media. These things sound idealistic, writes James, but big changes are necessary if we want to be healthier and happier.
** So is it a good read? **
I found some of it really absorbing, particularly the interviews with people around the world and the insights into other countries and cultures and their social systems. Affluenza, or the ideas behind it, is certainly something that is causing problems in our world and needs to be addressed. But there were also lots of elements to this book that nearly drove me up the wall!
Firstly, it is full of examples of people in various affluenza-driven predicaments, but it would have been helpful to have more examples of people doing 'the right thing' as well: e.g. it's all very well to tell us we should be choosing jobs we love rather than ones that pay the bills, but where are the examples of people who do this, and what advice would they give to poor affluenza-ridden souls like me? There are some examples of how things are better in Denmark, but they're sweeping statements rather than individual case-studies.
Secondly, and this really annoyed me, James contradicts himself on some important points. We are told we should do work that makes us intrinsically happy, so-called 'flow' activities (the kind that are so much fun that time seems to fly when you're doing them). But elsewhere in the book, we are warned that once you start getting paid for fun activities they lose their attraction. This is backed up by scientific studies and a further example is given is of a man James knew who gave up his boring job to do what he loved - scriptwriting - and found that once he was writing for money he developed writer's block and couldn't do it. This left me confused - should I work in the area I'm most interested or save it as a hobby and do work I don't care about?
James also withholds information until later on in the book. For example, I am apparently suffering from afffluenza because I would like to be more wealthy i.e. earn more money, according to the questionnaire at the beginning of the book. But towards the end of the book I learned that, according to James, virus goals (wanting money) are not damaging; it's the motivation that is harmful. So if I want more money so that I can help my family or start a business, then that's fine. But of course, the questionnaire doesn't take motivation into account and is very general ('very wealthy' means different things to different people). Is this just a clever way of convincing more people that they have affluenza and need to buy the book?
I found so many niggling points in this book that I could go on and on. For instance, we are told (in the 'vaccines' part, not the more idealistic Part Three) that we should avoid taking out credit we can't afford and should settle for cheaper housing and easily affordable mortgages. I, for one, would love Mr James to let me know where all this affordable housing is in the UK. We should also refrain from chasing high grades at school or university. Again it's all very well to say that, but if I'm going to do the job I love (as James recommends) then I need to do postgraduate study, and for that I need high grades. He suggests that high grades are only about self esteem and doesn't appear to acknowledge that for some people studying hard and passing exams is an intrinsically enjoyable activity (honestly, I really enjoy exams; I get a lot of satisfaction out of them. Some people like jobs where they are put on the spot and required to think on their feet, I am one of them).
There is also a lot of generalisation concerning the interviewees that were picked, such as the two British students that feature in the book: they are both at Oxford University (one at an all-girls' college). They are hardly representative of British students as a whole, and not all students want to be investment bankers, contrary to what James would have us believe. I would also have liked to know more about how his interviewees abroad were selected - we're told that the British Council helped him find people in the various countries, so does this mean that the interviewees came from a limited demographic (people with connections to a British cultural organisation)? Were they all interviewed in English or were they interviewed through an interpreter? These factors could affect how they understood the questions and how James understood their answers.
** $$$$$ in his eyes **
At one point I also felt the author was plugging his books. He also recommends that the vast majority of us need therapy to 'sort out' our childhoods and recommends that this be followed up by a type of therapy retreat that costs thousands of pounds. I found his belief that most of his readers need to see medical professionals to cope with their parents' behaviour quite offensive and patronising.
** A style of writing that only a mother (or father!) could love **
James employs a huge and varied vocabulary in his book (I had to get out the dictionary a fair few times), which I have no problem with. What I didn't like was his pompous tone and his strange habit of mixing different registers in the same sentence, even going so far as to misspell things on purpose ("any fule kno", "m'man"). I'm not sure whether this was supposed to make him sound more chatty/lively or make his prose more accessible to young readers. Or maybe he was poking fun of people who speak like that? Either way, it comes across as strange and breaks up the flow of his writing.
Elsewhere James' ideas are presented in a very long-winded way, with in-depth analysis of his interviewees that would surely only be interesting to them. It's just like listening to someone describe their dreams, which the author also does. Even worse, he goes a step further and recounts his father's recurring dreams, even though they are not really relevant to what he is explaining. It's unnecessary and James knows it, sheepishly suggesting that he should stop before the reader throws the book across the room in frustration. There is also a fair amount of irrelevant name-dropping (his father knew Freud's daughter, he has interviewed famous people, blah blah blah) though there is little information of what James actually does aside from writing articles, or what his qualifications are. It would have been good to have a little more professional information about the author.
By far the most irritating element for me though, was James' insistence on using his family as examples. They pop up throughout the book, especially his young daughter, who he is obviously totally enamoured with (and why shouldn't he be?), but whose ever-so-cute actions and comments have little place in a book like this. We are even treated to a demonstration of how she pronounces things ("gweat big", "teffone"). I can see how children's development is occasionally relevant to his arguments, but does the daughter really have to be wheeled out each time? And if so, why is his son so absent? The worst example of this is in the epilogue, where James tells us there is hope for the future of mankind despite the threat of affluenza, then uses himself, his mother and his daughter as examples. In the acknowledgments section he thanks someone for warning him that his first draft of the book was 'self-obsessed'. It's a pity he didn't act on this advice.
It's also a shame the book wasn't edited properly. In his (rather patronising) separate advice sections for men and women towards the end of the book, James repeatedly tells us to turn back to certain pages and re-read the bits where he mentions relevant studies. The only problem is, these studies are not on the pages he mentions, so his advice is rendered useless.
** Conclusion **
This book throws up some really interesting ideas. The virus analogy is a good way of putting forward the problems within our society, and I agree that the way we live nowadays is far from ideal, and that changes could be made to make our lives more emotionally satisfying. I really enjoyed reading the interviews with people around the world and gaining insights into how people live and think in other countries.
However, the author's ideas on how we can improve our lives struck me as very simplistic and patronising - I felt like I was being told off and I could see contradictions in his arguments. I resented the fact that he used the book to advertise his other books and certain kinds of therapy. In addition, the style of the author's writing and his propensity to write about himself and his family too much was also extremely annoying.
If I'm honest though, I do enjoy a bit of debate and argument, and actually I really got a lot out of reading this book, even if it did make me want to scream at times. I quite like being irritated and for that reason I'm giving the book 4 stars. Do psychologists have a name for that, I wonder?
** The book is 553 pages long, including notes, appendix and acknowledgements ***
I didn't buy this book, I borrowed it from my local library- they had taken advantage of the credit crunch to have a whole display dedicated to money- I am grateful- if they hadn't, I doubt this book and I would have crossed paths. I was drawn to it, as not only have I heard Oliver Jame's comments on society before, but also by the review comments- such as... Will Self saying..." should be mandatory reading for everyone" and Jeremy Vine's comment..." Never before have I read a book that so precisely captures the way we are all being emotionally snookered by the demands of 21st century living".
The hardback costs £17.99, but it is now available in paperback at various prices on Amazon etc; for about a fiver. Alternatively, of course there is always your local library.
Now as the book involves the author Oliver James travelling all over the world, and as he admits he first sent the book idea to his publisher in September 2003- this is not a rush it out now the credit crunch has arrived book- of which there are so many.
The book is about, Affluenza- which he says is a pandemic sweeping the globe, some areas are all but fully infected, some less so. He looks at the reasons why America and the UK are the worst affected and why some nations have no trace of the "disease".
He looks at how consumerism has impacted across the globe, on raising children, appearances, property fever and the sexes. The influence of a countries government, their religions and values are also considered in his analysis.
The book is divided into areas on the Affluenza Virus, The Vaccines, and finally a section entitled Wakey Wakey- where as Mr James says himself- "the gloves come off ...from a position of relative impartiality ....I allow myself to tell you what I really think"
Now I do not deny the book is heavy going in parts and I sometimes found it difficult to read. However, I am glad I persisted. I found it very interesting and for me a confirmation of what I already believed, it increased my belief with evidence rather than what had been just my assumptions. I would imagine some younger readers, being sufferers of Affluenza, (whether or not they would admit it), would not see what I see, and find the book somewhat condescending in parts. As a child of the fifties, I have watched the affluenza virus spread from the USA to the UK to become the most prevalent disease of the 21st century. I consider myself very lucky that my parents gave me the antidote at a very early age, it has protected me for the most part ever since.
I was already, at least partially immune from the virus, but those who have not been, may find that far from deriding his views, that they reach a life changing conclusion,. For when you learn to pursue your needs rather than your wants your emotional wellbeing and quality of life will become life enhancing.
The affluenza of the title is the virus James believes is taking over the English-speaking world faster than you can say Swine flu pandemic. The spread of selfish capitalism is leading to addiction, eating disorders and widespread depression according to the author. James basic idea is a good one with some relevance. This was written before the global recession hit and published back in 2007 by Vermilion so some of the points seem outdated already. I found the metaphor of the virus got in the way of an interesting book sometimes and it was a stretch to fit the book neatly into this restrictive idea. The book begins with a test you can take to see if you are infected with affluenza, this feels a bit silly - like something you would find in Just Seventeen. Then the book is broken into three parts -
*Part one - The Virus. This section explains what affluenza is - insecurity, alienation, feeling incompetent and inauthenticity. We also get the first of many interesting case studies, which were the best part of the book for me.
*Part two- The Vaccine. This section suggests how we can protect ourselves against the negative thinking and destructive ideals society imposes upon us. I found this part very simplistic and a bit patronising. It's worthwhile being reminded to consume what we need instead of succumbing to advertising and to value beauty above attractiveness but I found comparing nations to each other as if we are mindless sheep didn't really ring true. To say all Danish women are comfortable in their own skin and all English women are not belies the individualistic nature of human beings.
*Part three- Wakey Wakey! This section descends further into patronising, bad self-help book territory. There is one section for women and a different one for men. I found his advice to be quite annoying at this point. I know that not all men are b*stards without having to read a book about it and do not need the kind of reconditioning he seems to expect I do having grown up being female in this society. I actually have a mind of my own and seek to question authority, which is why the preachy nature this book falls into does not sit well. The section for men fell into outdated and insulting gender stereotypes as much as the women's one. He states that "men prefer to stick to football" rather than share real intimacy with their friends. My fiance enjoys deep and meaningful relationships with his friends and assures me they do talk about their feelings and difficulties together despite this widespread misapprehension.
I found the book did not flow well - I usually read books very quickly and I kept picking this up and putting it down again. Granted, it probably had more resonance before the recession forced everyone to re-evaluate their goals and aspirations but the tone of the book was just too over simplistic for my liking. The fact that someone is a psychologist doesn't make them qualified to preach or make sweeping statements about identity.
ISBN no: 978-0-09-190011-3
Available £5.67 from Amazon
This is a review of the book Affluenza by Oliver James.
The paperback version is 548 pages long and published by Vermillion with an rrp of £8.99. It is available in all good bookshops as well as online bookstores such as Amazon.
In this book, Oliver James, a psychotherpist and writer, provides us the answer to why, when we are living in such wealthy times, there is an increase of mental health problems such as depression and eating disorders. The answer is that we are all infected with affluenza, that in our pursuit to achieve good grades, look good and buy more, we are making ourselves miserable.
The book starts with a self test to see if you are infected with the virus. I think all of us would answer yes to at least one of the questions such as do you admire people with a lot of money and do you follow fashion. There is then a test to see how distressed you are by your current lifestyle.
In the next section of the book, James visits various countries around the world to compare their lifestyles. We are introduced to Sam, a Wall Street Banker who lives in an expensive appartment yet is lonely and sex addicted. His fortunes are compared to Chet, the poor but happy taxi driver who is happy with his life.
We are told about Danish society, where men and women are far more equal, there is little advertising and there is a far more equitable society and a lot less depression.
James also visits other countries such as Singapore and Russia to compare their lifestyles there.
The next part of the book tells us how to vaccinate ourselves against the virus by replacing our current values with more intrinsic ones such as education for the love of learning, valuing beauty instead of attractiveness.
The final section of the book is James own view of how society should be made better. He attacks many New Labour political figures for being virus corrupted and has radical solutions such as slashing house prices.
The facts and figures used throughout the book are quoted at the end.
This book is well worth a read. I however sometimes found Oliver James a bit smug and simplistic in his comments and found his anecdotes about his own family a bit sickly and offputting. The message throughout the book seems to be that rich people are miserable and the poor are good and noble. It does however give us a chance to examine our own lives and see where our own values lie.