Whatever happened to ‘affluenza’?
The therapeutic elite has slyly shifted from blaming wealth to blaming poverty for our alleged mental instability.
‘Victims of recession to get free therapy.’ The UK Observer’s headline this Sunday was pure April Fool’s Day. ‘Sufferers [from the recession]’, the report continued with a straight face, ‘will be referred to psychotherapists for expert counselling via an advice network linking Jobcentres, doctor’s surgeries and a new NHS Direct hotline’. A piece of insane broadsheet satire, surely?
Sadly, no: the joke is on us, for this thought-resistant wheeze is, incredibly, a bona fide government proposal to prevent those who have lost their jobs becoming, well, clinically upset. By the end of next year, thousands of specialist nurses and psychotherapists will be seated in primary care trusts across the land, smugly informing the unemployed that any feelings of misery, anger or discontent they might feel are not only misplaced – they are signs of mental illness. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s your malfunctioning brain.
UK health secretary Alan Johnson, presumably with a smile surgically grafted on to his deathly visage, said he was going to go ‘further and faster’ to help people ‘affected psychologically by the recession’. Right on cue, Professor Richard Layard, former ‘happiness’ adviser to the government, piped up to celebrate this Brave New Labour World: ‘[The proposals are the] most important development in the treatment of mental health since the war.’
There’s something strange in all this. Until recently, government officials and their happiness advisers claimed that having too much made us mentally ill; now, in a 360-degree turnaround, they argue that having too little is the real threat to psychological stability.
Four years ago, Layard was at the forefront of the Wellbeing Agenda, a government-led critique of the contemporary Western way of life, something former US President Jimmy Carter once described as ‘the owning things, consuming things obsession’. In his Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, Layard wrote: ‘There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier.’ The problem facing society was not not having enough; it was people’s apparently obsessive focus on having more than their fair share.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to argue that the rampant, grasping materialism that is allegedly predominant in the West is causing people to become depressed, perhaps clinically so. Psychologist Oliver James invented the term ‘affluenza’ to describe this condition, an affliction of prosperity. As ‘luxury fever’ gripped the consuming hordes, the non-materialist aspects of life, like friendship and family, were being neglected, we were told. In the consumerist dystopia, everyone was salivating over flash cars and plush houses, plasma screen TVs and iPods. Striving, conniving, and not a little anxious, modern men and women were forever grasping after more and better stuff, always trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Despite the promises of affluence, however, these aspirant and greedy people, stuck on a ‘hedonic treadmill’, were becoming mentally ill, said James, Layard, et al.
It wasn’t just Blairites and Brownites who said we needed a new approach to life, based, ironically, on having less. During his riding-my-bike-to-work phase, Conservative leader David Cameron also adopted the ‘radical new agenda’ of ‘promoting wellbeing’. How things change. Where in the mid-noughties it was all the rage amongst the well-heeled political class to talk up the value of life outside of work and shopping, come the decade’s close such enthusiasm looks more than a little tasteless.
The irony is painful. Having zealously advocated the mentally balanced good life apart from the production and consumption, it seems the holy grail of mass leisure is not the happiness pill the political class thought it would be. People would rather be at work. And able to buy things. In fact, not being able to go to work, not being able to fall prey to the angst-ridden charms of consumption, is actually (shock horror!) likely to make people miserable, too, and probably a bit more pissed off than not having the top-of-the-range BMW.
A few years ago it was affluence making us mentally ill; now it’s penury. So what is it that ‘sickens’ us: being caught up in the rat race, or cast out from it? What exactly is the source of our dementia? The problem is the question. What the government’s latest proposals, and before that the Wellbeing Agenda, really reflect is the tendency to turn everyday emotional states, from shyness to unhappiness to worry, into clinical entities, pathological conditions that need state-funded treatment. That is the real madness here. Collective socio-economic problems, which are really only amenable to collective, political solutions, have been transformed into personal problems. A sense of people’s powerlessness before the economic crisis is cynically turned into an opportunity for state-sponsored victimisation. Misery, instead of being an understandable reflex to losing one’s job, is transformed by the political elite into an internally produced disorder needing psychotherapy.
Most of us would probably prefer a bit of retail therapy.
Tim Black is senior writer of spiked.