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"We have quickened the pace of life only to become less patient.
We have become more organized but less spontaneous, less joyful.
We are better prepared to act on the future but less able to enjoy
thepresent and reflect on the past." ----Jeremy Rifkin


In 1995 the Merck Family Fund did a fascinating nationwide survey.  They were curious about American consumerism and its effects on society and our ecology.  Their findings brought out some important things for concerned citizens to think about.

  • Merck found that 66% of respondents agreed with the statement: "I would be much more satisfied with my life if I were able to spend more time with my family and friends."

  • Over half of those questioned felt: "I would be more satisfied if there was less stress in my life."

  • Also, 47% responded positively to the statement: "I would be much more satisfied with life if I felt like I was doing more to make a difference in my community."

    These responses point to a need to spend less time at work and more time relaxing and relating.

    Since 1969, the average American worker has added nearly one month of work time (142 hours) to his or her annual schedule!  Though a career path is important to many Americans, evidence is mounting that pursuit of only career goals and material fulfillment is creating a void in the American psyche.

    Though most of us put a majority of our money (and therefore most of our working hours) toward the material side of life, it appears that there is some dissatisfaction with the exchange.  Material aspirations ("a nicer car", "a bigger house or apartment") identified in the Merck survey were chosen by less than 21% of the respondents and were not ranked anywhere near the top three choices.  

    This study's title was aptly called "Yearning for Balance" and its summation states our country's yearning succinctly: "(Americans) feel that an essential side of life centered on family, friends and community has been pushed aside by the dominant ethic of 'more, more, more,' and they are looking for ways to restore some equilibrium."  It is the aim of the Quality of Life Association ("KOALA") to aid in this search for equilibrium---may we be successful (AND valuable)!!

    Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value." -----Einstein


    Americans know that there are serious problems in the direction that society has taken.  Many know that this materialistic road that we are on is a dead end. The Merck Study shows four areas of deep concern:

    1. Americans believe that our priorities are out of whack. We believe that materialism, greed and selfishness increasingly dominate American life, crowding out a more meaningful set of values centered on family,responsibility and community.  This is a profound understanding of how unbalanced society has become. Hopefully it will motivate some profound change.

    2. Americans are alarmed about the future. People are getting the terrible feeling that the American Dream is "spinning out of control." That participation in this social norm is increasingly unhealthy and destructive. People are not happy about what they see for the future or for their children.

    3. Americans are ambivalent about what to do. From the survey it appears that we are unclear about, or unwilling to move toward the hard choices that making a difference would take. We need to build communities of support to assist us all in moving forward. We could also use some leadership around these issues. Current leadership is, for the most part, stuck in the ruts of "business as usual."

    4. Americans see the environment as connected to their concerns.This is only in general terms, unfortunately.  "People have not thought deeply about the ecological implications of their own lifestyles; yet there is an intuitive sense that our propensity for 'more, more, more' is unsustainable."  Our connection with each other is the and "web of life" that binds us with all of nature deserves a more in depth look combined with action!

    "Seek among men, from beggar to millionaire, one who is contented with his lot, and you will not find one such in a thousand." ---Author Leo Tolstoy


    This is the semi-humorous term for our modern epidemic of stress and overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream.  But there is nothing humorous about the effects Affluenza has had on the health and harmony of American society.  High blood pressure, ulcers and depression have become epidemic in our modern culture!  It is part of what contributes to three of Americas best selling prescription medications being Tagamet (for aid with acid stomach and ulcers), Inderal (for high blood pressure and some heart problems), and Valium (a sedative to calm frayed nerves).  There are several anti-depressants in the top ten best sellers as well. 

    Best selling author, Professor Juliet Schor, gives multiple examples of symptoms of affluenza in her book "The Overspent American."  Just a few of her powerful findings:

  • 33% of Americans say that their lives are out of control!

  • Half of the population of the richest country in the world say they cannot afford everything they really need.  This includes 27% of those earning more than $100,000.

  • We have been in a spending frenzy at the end of the century.  Between 1979 and 1995 the average person's spending increased more than 30%!  With this, saving has dropped to 0.5% of disposable income in 1998 (and continues to drop).

    More and more people are becoming unsatisfied with the disparity between their happiness and what they must do to maintain the "American Dream."  A significant portion of the population is seeing this more as an AmericanNightmare. Donna Sicklesmith is one of them.

    Donna could be used as our poster child for an anti-affluenza campaign.  Her comments on her brand of the disease are scary: "My fast lane life was a combination of workaholism, spendaholism, and anxiety attacks about keeping it all together.  I worked very hard and then abused alcohol on the weekends to bring me down from my workaholic frenzy."  She is a free-lance graphic designer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.  The married mother of two children, her fast lane career lasted from ages 27-42.  Like many of us she based her self worth on what she DID rather than WHO she was: "What I based my self worth on was how many hours I was working, how much money I was making, how many awards I was winning, and what prestigious clients I currently had."  Her first "awakening" personal crisis was following a great vacation to Europe which allowed her "to really relax with loved ones."  On return she couldn't get out of bed for 5 days.  I bounced back and forth between depression and anxiety attacks.  Through the help of a trusted friend I was able to figure out what was so distasteful about the life I was refusing to crawl back into."  She took this new insight to heart, vowing to spend more time with family. The next day she went into her professional organization where she was the vice president and resigned.

    It took another crisis 2 years later to push her to fully reassessher quality of life.  She lost a valued, lucrative client who accounted for40% of her business. The client had created an in-house design studio, cutting her and several other freelancers out.  Along with this shock came the added blockbuster that her husband had been untruthful about his income and spending habits and was $50,000 in debt!  "I think it was the shock of realizing that my reality was not really reality that floored me,"she laments.

    The REAL shock is that Donna's story is not a rarity among the 33% of people who say that their lives are "out of control."  Another person, Jeanie Curtis, a single woman from the Chico, California area tells of a life where she had "created the illusion of a life through a number of roles that I played in my community (too numerous to list--and not relevant anymore).  I had a schedule instead of a life, choosing to buy things rather than deal with my inner emotions and [troubling] situations.  I looked very able and functional to those around me and was the much talked aboutwonder woman...doing and being all for everyone except myself."

    It took an "extreme medical situation" for Jeanie to create the change needed for a saner lifestyle.  She contracted tuberculosis in her right arm (yes, TB can be contracted in ANY body part, not just the most common site---the lung).  It took a long time for her to be correctly diagnosed. She became so despondent over the pain and hopelessness of her life that she attempted suicide. At the psychiatric facility that she was sent to, she had the required TB test and thus, she was finally correctly diagnosed through this extreme act of desperation.

    Many people in North America are in desperate situations.  They may not rival Jeanie Curtis' but they are desperate none the less.  KOALA is an aid to help people get more of a "handle" on a life that is becoming ever busier ever more out of control.  It is an attempt to assist people in avoiding the "crisis correction" that Donna and Jeanie ran into in their lives.

    Crisis correction is making a change in life only after figuratively running into a wall(often several times).  It is as one affluenza sufferer visualized it: "waiting for the 2 by 4 to hit you in the forehead" before seeing a destructive behavior.

    The decadence of affluenza is destructive to our souls.  It requires self-delusion not to realize it's destructiveness.  As writer Harry Flood states:Decadence is self-delusion on a massive scale....it's about convincing ourselves of the value of this lifestyle, because to question it would force choices we're not prepared to make."

    Stopping this decadence has inspired new religion!  A New York performance artist named Bill Talen has started the Church of Stop Shopping.  He preaches in Times Square as Reverend Billy and spreads the word of anti-consumerism. His antics provide a good method of infusing humor into an important message. See Reverend Billy's message on the www.revbilly.com.


    The saddest fact about affluenza is that all of this striving is not makingus any happier or making society a better place to live.  In fact, there is strong evidence that as a society in general, we have more problemsdespite an improving economic picture.

    For 25 years, Fordham University has monitored the national incidence of 16 social problems (including child abuse, teen suicide, drug abuse, homicides, alcohol related traffic fatalities).  From 1970 to 1977 the trend in the country's social health mirrored the rise and fall of the nations Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ---used to gauge economic growth.  Since 1977, however, the country's GDP has steadily risen while the Index of Social Health has steadily dropped to a point that is now 52% lower than the high point established in 1973!  Roughly translated, the index shows that while the financial health of the US. has continued to improve, the nation's social health has worsened.

    Our physical health seems to be suffering also: between 1995 and 1999, the number of people calling in sick because of stress more than tripled!  In comparison to the rest of the world we have up to half of the time that others do to recover from a stressful year.

    The workers of Sweden have twice the legally mandated vacation days that Americans have!  The people of Spain, Denmark, Austria and France have nearly as many as Sweden.  These are not backwater, non-industrial countries. These are all part of the vigorous, productive, competitive European Common Market.

    To sum up what Affluenza means to Americans: we are working harder---enjoying it less; some of us may be better off financially but as a society we are suffering.  In the end, affluenza hurts us all because we are all interconnected as a society and we often bear the brunt of social problems in unforeseen ways.  It is always easier to present a positive alternative to a problem ahead of time than attempt to correct a problem with an expensive solution later (i.e.. the problem of education and counseling now or the prison system later or working with less toxic chemicals vs. cancer and expensive cleanup later).

    The beginning of the solution toward quality of life are expressed in two great quotes from two of the great thinkers of history.  Socrates taught the simple yet basic: "know thyself."  And once you really know yourself and your deepest needs, try Will Shakespeare's supplement to that: "to thine own self be true." Know and be true to yourself.  Sounds easy, can be difficult in practice.

    There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one's self." ---Ben Franklin

    When we truly know ourselves, are true to ourselves and know what a quality life means to us, then we can make easier and better decisions(for ourselves and our loved ones).

    The majority of Americans are aware that there's a problem.  The Mercksurvey asked specific questions about the reasons for consumption in our society and showed that greater than 80% of respondants thought that consumption was a way of life in this country AND that it is "wasteful" and that our "youth are too focused on buying and consuming things."  (A little case of finger pointing here, don't you think?).  Awareness is the first step toward correction of a problem.  Now we need a wider social discussion of where we would like to place our focus when we cut back our consumption.  Many groups(see Resources) and Public Broadcasting are creating some awareness and some new avenues of inspiration.


    The Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) has produced a documentary on the condition called "Affluenza" and a sequel to this called "Escape from Affluenza."

    For starters, PBS offers these 9 tips as strategies for beating affluenza:

    1. Before you buy, ask yourself:

  • How many hours will I have to work to pay for it?
  • Do I NEED it?
  • Do I want to do what it takes to maintain it?(i.e.. dust, dry-clean)
  • Could I borrow it from a friend, neighbor or family member?
  • Is there anything I already own that I could substitute for it?
  • Are the resources that went into it renewable, or non- renewable?

    2. Avoid the Mall. Go hiking or play ball with the kids instead.

    3. Figure out what public transportation can save you (time, money for gas and parking, peace of mind).

    4. Become an advertising critic.  Don't be sucked in by efforts to make you feel inadequate so you'll buy more stuff you don't need.

    5. Volunteer for a school or community group.

    6. Splurge consciously. A few luxuries can be delightful, and they don't have to be expensive.

    7. Stay in -- have a potluck, play a game, bake bread, write a letter, cuddle a loved one.

    8. Make a budget, ( here's that dirty word--see the book "Your Money Or Your Life"--in Resources--on ways to make it interesting and fun) know how much you are earning and spending.  Each dollar represents precious time in your life that you had to give up to earn.  Are you spending money in ways that fulfill you?

    9. Pretend that the Jones's are the thriftiest, least wasteful people on the block. Then try to keep up with them!


    © Copyright 2000-07 Bruce Draper, All rights reserved.