In recent years, a new disease or, better to say, epidemic has been afflicting India. Unlike influenza or bird flue it has not come from the east nor is its effect temporary. Once afflicted, it is very difficult for the victim to recover. Till now no effective medicine is known that can cure the victim and nurse him to health. Nor has any prophylactic vaccine been discovered. This new disease is “affluenza”, which is related to affluence.

The distinguishing characteristic of this disease is that it afflicts the rich, not the poor and it has originated from America. It is so recent that it finds place only in a few lexicons. Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English describes it as indicative of extreme materialism that motivates people to accumulate wealth for over consumption of goods and services. It also denotes feelings of guilt and isolation from the dysfunctional pursuit of wealth and goods. It is a social rather than physical disease caused by consumerism, commercialism and rampant materialism and its antidote is simple living.

This term has been only a decade old. A psychotherapist, Jessie O’Neill in 1996, popularized it. She used it in her book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence, which was, in turn, based on her thesis “Psychology of Affluence”. She defined affluenza as “dysfunctional or unhealthy relations with money or wealth or the pursuit of it.”

To quote Prof. Oliver James of Britain, whose book on the topic is yet to be released in the Indian market,  “The Affluenza virus is a set of values which increase our vulnerability to psychological distress: placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. Many studies have shown that infection with the virus increase your susceptibility to the commonest mental illnesses: depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder.

“The virus values prevent you from fulfilling fundamental human needs which seem to exist in every society. Whereas you want a better car or greater intelligence or bigger house, you can survive without them; the same is not true of Needs.

“The precise content and labeling of such needs is debatable, but four are very commonly identified: security (emotional and material), connectedness to others, authenticity and autonomy, and feeling competent.”

Prof. Oliver James visited seven important countries of the world to study the phenomenon and collected the data relating to it. The main finding was that the Americanised, Anglo-Saxon model was ill suited to most of the developing world because it brings in and helps spread the virus of affluenza. In spite of being the riches country the incidence of mental illness was the highest in America. It was followed by Britain, Australia and Canada that had adopted the American life style and values enthusiastically. As against this, the mainline European countries had three times less illness. He noted: “Within developed nations, there is a clear correlation between high mental-illness rates and high disparities in income distribution—characteristic of Americanised societies. Younger generations are more afflicted than older ones, the younger being especially influenced by America’s, Affluenza-promoting cultural imperialism.” It is noteworthy that affluenza virus afflicts urban societies more than the rural ones. Similarly industrialised societies are more prone to affluenza virus than non-industrialised ones.

The growing impact of advertisements through media has obliterated the distinction between the needs and wants. People are prompted to buy goods and services even if they do not need them or they do not fulfil any of their needs. They are encouraged to buy them because they have come to be regarded as status symbols. They are told that if so and so leading actor or actress or prominent industrialist or politician here or abroad buys a particular commodity, how can you refrain from doing so? Do you want to lag behind in the social status? Thus, what the economist Harvey Leibenstein once termed “band wagon effect” comes into operation. A Ms Sunita Narayan may say that Coke-Pepsi drinks contain pesticides in harmful quantity, yet you should not give them up because so many prominent cine actors and actresses and business executives continue drinking them, who are supposed to be wiser than her. It is more important to join the ranks of the rich and powerful than care for one’s health.

In the present times, there is no insurmountable hindrance in the way of continuing the consumption of status goods and services because credit facility is widely available. In the earlier times, one could buy goods and services to the extent one commanded purchasing power, which was limited by cash, bank deposits and other movable and immovable assets. One’s capacity to borrow was circumscribed by the movable and immovable assets one possessed. Now this limitation is practically gone. One could go on shopping till one is extremely tired. In the earlier days when globalisation had not arrived and neoliberalism had not taken roots, foreign trade was restricted. There was no free flow of goods and services from foreign lands. Only a handful of people with plenty of money at their disposal could buy them in black market or import through smugglers. Now all those barriers and restrictions are gone and whatever one wishes to buy it is available in the local shops. With the coming up of the malls, a rich Indian is not required to go to Dubai, Singapore or elsewhere for shopping. Thus on both demand as well as supply side, the difficulties that used to trouble the earlier generations have been removed. Credit card facility, easy bank finance and hire purchase scheme have removed the constraint on the demand side while liberalisation of foreign trade and the outlets provided by the malls and retail chains have done away with the difficulties on the supply side. The media, both indigenous and foreign, besides the free flow of tourists keep the prospective buyers posted with latest varieties of goods and services and the trends in fashion in America and other developed countries. One could buy goods through Internet with the help of credit card without even stirring out of one’s house.

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a important book, authored jointly by John De Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Nylor, terms affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It is a painful virus running rampant in the society that is eager to align, without giving much thought to the consequences, with America, the leading light of globalisation. If this virus is not eliminated or controlled, it is destined to destroy, families, communities and environment. Since it prompts people to acquire riches by hook or by crook, it encourages indulgence in all sorts of corrupt practices and criminal activities. One may just look up the newspaper reports about scams and the people hauled up on corruption charges and the pattern of their spending to realize that globalisation and American life-style and values are an important factor.

Affluenza has an adverse impact on saving and investment and, thus, the rate of economic growth. Slowly and slowly, it influences and moulds the lifestyle and consumption pattern of those who have been hitherto untouched.

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