Affluenza
By Oliver James
Vermilion | 400 pages | ISBN-13 978-0091900106 | £17. 99

Oliver James trained as a clinical child psychologist. Subsequently, as is often the way with members of his calling, he has become a media guru, dispensing his own brand of wisdom to the chattering classes and other readers. Since 2003 he has been a member of the “Happiness Forum”. He also practises yoga. Wanting, naturally, to become a little more affluent himself (without,of course, catching the virus of “affluenza”) he has written a book in the “how to” genre. In the old days, before existential angst got going, men wrote books with titles like “Think and Grow Rich”. Today, as James’s book sets out to prove, being rich is no cause for celebration or boasting. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. In this he follows the pioneering work of others, such as Jessie H. O’Neill, a Milwaukee psychotherapist (inevitably) who runs a website called “The Affluenza Project”.

He defines the symptoms of the “affluenza virus” as “placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous.” The disease, a 21st century one, can lead to emotional distress: depression, anxiety, addiction and personality disorder. To further his researches, the author visited seven world centres of affluence where the deadly virus lurks: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Shanghai, Moscow, Copenhagen and New York, where he interviewed selected victims of affluence. As other people are always fascinating – even those James dismisses as boring because they lead blatantly shallow lives – these interviews are the most interesting part of his book. Indeed, they evoke feelings of pity: how can such privileged people lead such hollow, empty lives? Yet one must still inquire if the author’s jet setting investigations have led him to diagnose a new disease or to re-label an old one.

Two thousand years ago, in Palestine, a rich young man, was invited by an itinerant preacher to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor and to seek the kingdom of heaven. He chose not to and we are told he “went away sad, for he had many possessions”. So the burden of riches is not new. It is James’ contention that this “sadness”, fostered by rampant capitalism, is no longer the privilege of a few but can grip whole societies. In Sydney, apparently, it has become a pandemic. He quotes a Sydney woman, aged 35, who says, “It made me very angry to realise I had been persuaded… that there is no value in family, friends or home life and it is considered despicable to want children.”

Certainly, loving wealth for its own sake has never brought contentment. Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens shows us this. So when James tells us that “the pursuit of wealth becomes harmful if it becomes a material substitute for the life of the mind”, he is, possibly, stating the obvious. What might have been more valuable would have been an exploration of very rich people who lead or led fulfilled lives, not “possessed” by their possessions, such as philanthropists Andrew Carnegie, John Paul Getty, Tom Monaghan or Bill Gates. James does admit that “regular church-goers suffer less depression than unbelievers”, but does not explore this further, except to emphasise that psychotherapeutic treatment is keen on the “spiritual dimension”. This, he quickly adds, has nothing to do with “conventional religion or any hocus pocus.”

He discovers in his travels that rich people in Shanghai seem largely immune to the virus compared with the same income group in Singapore. He concludes that this is partly because of their Confucian traditions, with their emphasis on filial respect and community, and partly because of memories of recent deprivations under Communism. So family, kinship and social ties, as well as gratitude — “give thanks for an inside loo” — are important factors in immunity. So is suffering. James finds that those who best exhibit the supreme virtues of “authenticity, vivacity and playfulness” have overcome real adversity. Again, he notes that those most vulnerable to emotional distress have usually experienced unhappy childhoods, with remote, over-ambitious or separated parents. It is a well-worn thesis.

While it is true that research can always be found to bolster up a preconceived idea such as “affluenza”, it can sometimes indicate real societal trends. In the UK, for instance, the Institute for Public Policy Research has found a substantial increase in mental health disorders, self-harming and anti-social behaviour in disadvantaged young people born at the end of the 1970s, compared with a similar group born in 1958. In other words, many young people from the underclass are showing classic signs of emotional distress. That these are also the decades of working parents, easier divorce and single parenthood comes as no surprise. It is also no surprise that James would rather practise his therapeutic skills in New York penthouses than in sink estates in London. Yet his sad rich people are not so different from the far more numerous sad poor. Both have lacked loving nurture in childhood, both have usually come from broken homes; and both believe the shallow satisfactions of this world are all there is. So perhaps it is modern secular society, with its determined “intolorenza” towards old-fashioned values, rather than “affluenza” that is to blame.

James does make some sensible observations: that it is parents who should raise their children, at least until the age of three, when they are old enough to enjoy nursery; that they should be properly rewarded for this; that couples, especially when they have children, should think very hard before deciding to divorce; that “a measure of stoicism is essential in life”.

But his book also contains many irritants. To state that “just as AIDS is stalking the globe, so is the Affluenza virus” is an offensive analogy. It is reductive – and a measure of the author’s academic limitations – to say that “the real darkness in President George W Bush’s life was his overbearing mother and perfect father”. It is gratuitously unpleasant that in his list of aids to a good night’s sleep he includes masturbation. It is patronising to be told in part three of his book that “some parts of what follow are shocking” – photos of genocide in Rwanda? — when all we learn is that it is wiser to concentrate on what we need rather than on what we want. Finally, it is discourteous to the reader to adopt a faux-easy style that he clearly thinks most suited to our understanding: words like “bloody”, “tosser”, “shit”, “bollocks” and “piss-up” are scattered throughout his rather leaden narrative. Despite Sigmund Freud’s many false conclusions about human nature, his writing style was polished and elegant. He could definitely teach this late-born descendant better prose manners.

One of my humorous heroes is the Australian sailor who survived for several days in stormy seas before being rescued. When asked by his rescuers whether he would like “counselling” he politely declined, saying “I would rather have a cold beer”. Faced with the prospect of James’s “counselling”, I would rather an Irish coffee.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.