Affluenza: A 21st-Century Epidemic

Casey Bacon, Co-Editor

In today’s culture, we are surrounded by a glamorized version of opulence and wealth: the rich and famous are plastered across magazines and television screens everywhere we turn, and consumers are targeted to buy the best and newest of products. Stereotypically, if you have the funds to afford this “best” of everything, you glide through life without a care in the world– right? Studies reveal the lifestyles of the rich and the famous may not be all they’re cracked up to be, and that this blame may be attributed to a growing phenomenon known as “affluenza.” Which is just what it sounds like: an influenza of affluence. The question in the spotlight now is: is this a valid excuse for poor behavior, acknowledged just as any other mental disease, and is this a plague of our generation that is too far gone to be stopped?

People speculate the word’s origins, but it has been traced as far back as Jessie O’Neill’s novel, “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Influence.” O’Neill, the granddaughter of General Motors’ former president, has founded and directs the Affluenza Project as a resource to understand money’s effects on life and relationships. According to the organization, the condition is “a harmful or unbalanced relationship with money or its pursuit… [In the individual, it is] the collective addictions, character flaws, psychological wounds, neurosis and behavioral disorders caused or exacerbated by the presence of or desire for wealth.” Others, like writer John De Graaf, scientist David Wann, and economist Thomas Naylor, compiled affluenza’s explanation in their collaborative novel as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit” of wealth. Lovely. If you’re looking to self-diagnosis, symptoms can include: workaholism, an “addiction to chaos,” low self-esteem, a loss of future motivation, depression, an acute inability to delay satisfaction or tolerate frustration, and a false sense of entitlement. Shockingly, it’s often exhibited by either those who have wealth or those who are pursuing it. But don’t create a run on your local physicians just yet: the wider medical community doesn’t officially recognize it as an illness. Frank Farley, a professor of educational psychology and Temple University and former president of the esteemed American Psychological Association, holds that there is no medical basis for the term “affluenza,” and calls it “pop psychology at its worst” in a recent ABC News interview. While it does appear to indicate shared traits with other diagnosable conditions, like narcissistic disorder, “the science is close to zero”to justify it as a place in the diagnostic system. Despite this, Farley does merit that the affluenza concept is worthy of further study, like how a social class or a parental action can influence a teen’s own behavior. “A kid raised in this cocoon of social class,” he reflects, “may not even have the same concepts of social responsibility that everyday folks have.” He is adamant; however, that this doesn’t excuse people of their own actions.Source- Nation of Change

That wasn’t exactly the case in Ethan Couch’s trial. At sixteen years old in 2013, the Texas teenager drove drunk down a small country backroad, reportedly at seventy miles per hour with eight friends in the vehicle; ABC News, in its coverage, left the haunting image of “car parts, bodies, and debris scattered everywhere.” In the wreckage, four people were left dead, more were injured severely, and a disoriented Couch was left strewn in the grass, reportedly telling a helpful bystander, “Hey man, I am, I am Ethan, I can get you out of all of this.” To the four counts of intoxicated manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault, Couch pled guilty; his legal team called prominent psychologist Dr. Miller to testify on Couch’s behalf to claim that his upbringing and lack of consequences caused him to suffer from affluenza, causing public outrage for the blame of such an accident on an unrecognized disease. The doctor claimed that Couch needed to be separated from his parents, as they “strongly enabled the deadly accident.” The prosecution pushed for twenty years behind bars, but the judge instead sentenced the teen to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility. In early December of the past year, Couch was sought after missing a mandatory probation check-in with the Texas authorities– after investigation, his discovered run to Mexico shoved his case back into the spotlight. Though he’s been granted temporary stay at the country’s deportation center, the question of whether or not affluenza exists, what causes it, and whether our generation is susceptible stands as a fear of many parents across the country.

Critics still hold strong in their judgements of the condition, but the assertions of it aren’t without some corroboration. Studies by American Demographics found that materialism seems to have only been rising since its culmination in the early 20th century, as Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar has been discovered after twenty-five years of researching privileged children. She has gathered in that time that drug and alcohol use is higher among affluent teens than those of the same demographic in inner cities, and that there are “comparable levels of delinquency” for children in lower- and upper-income properties– the only difference is the form that rule-breaking takes: in well-off households, it tends to include levels of widespread cheating and stealing from both parents and peers. Similarly, the researchers have concluded that comparatively, children growing up in wealthier households are more susceptible to anxiety and depression than the national average.

Parents will always want their children to have better than they do, that’s to be expected; but the pressure to be the very best can be overwhelming to these kids, who feel that coming from parents who are lewdly successful and (usually) have the best of everything places a presumption that they must be even more so. It’s not only parents that put on this pressure, but peers, schools, teachers, and coaches– essentially coming in from all sides.  “We’ve got to stop this business of letting kids believe that if I just get into one more AP class,” urged Luthar, “if I just get another GPA point, that will make the difference getting into Harvard… or Princeton… and feeling that if I don’t go to Harvard or Princeton, that essentially, my life is over.”

It does not only impact the lavishly rich, either; “The truth is,” Luthar admits, “if you are an educated, white-collar professional family, you are this demographic.” With this abundance of money, children are more likely able to take this surplus and spend it on “recreational activities”: drugs, alcohol, and sophisticated fake IDs to access these privileges. Parents, in turn, have to have the funds to pay for high-profile lawyers to assure that their children’s records are not marred by this bad behavior. “We are not saying that all affluent parents do this,” Luthar emphasized, “or even that most do. But there is a sizable and vocal minority of parents who do not just bail their kids out but do it repeatedly and do it in very inappropriate circumstances. So these are the kids who then start to believe, and rightfully so, [that] I’m not getting caught and even if I do, nothing’s going to happen to me.” To combat this, Manhattan psychologist Harris Stratyner, who works mainly with wealthy families, says that families should worry about instilling good values, but not by simply giving to their children; they should expect work in return. “If you just give,” he advised, “then you’re not instilling the work ethic. Parents have to instill responsibilities. You live in a nuclear family, and you have certain responsibilities. You have chores. You have to take out the garbage. You need to be home for dinner.” Similarly, he holds that they can learn to take action and cooperate through school and team sports, at places that serve to train for the real world. “This is what you’re going to have to do when you get a job,” adds Eileen Gallo, a L.A. licensed psychologist. “You are going to be collaborating with people and getting along so there are all kinds of ways to help kids develop a work ethic.”

This is not to say that we are going to escape the bonds of consumerism and materialism anytime soon. In research through the marketing company American Demographics, out of eighteen to thirty-four year olds– children of Baby Boomers and Generation X– twenty-three percent of men and thirty-six percent of women confessed to “always or frequently” coveting their neighbor’s’ goods; within the same study group, 60% confirmed that they were jealous of the glamorized lifestyles of “celebrity or public figures,” while money was shown above all else to be the most coveted item in this age group. With the sheer amount of glitz and the temporal shoved down the throats of the American public every day, it’s no wonder that up and coming generations, our future, are buying into this way of thinking. But all hope is not lost: if future parents are able to take this advice– placing responsibilities onto their children, moving away from the image of luxury influencing personal values, and advocating for children to try their best without repercussions for not being the best– then maybe we can eradicate affluenza before the first case is ever diagnosed.