I can make a pretty confident guess that if you are reading this, you have been infected by Affluenza to some degree. Never heard of Affluenza? It’s the title of a book by Oliver James. You should read it. As you can see, the title is a portmanteau of “affluence” and “influenza” and James talks us through this very modern malaise that is affecting mostly English-speaking countries and is spreading to places that are heavily influenced by modern American culture and Selfish Capitalism.
Symptoms include: placing importance on earning lots of money, possessions, appearance, social status and being famous or well-known; projecting a certain “image” of yourself to the world; feeling anxious, or depressed, envious or angry and/or disdainful of other people; having addictions or problems concentrating; finding comfort in shopping or other consumer activities; aspiring to images propounded in adverts, magazines, TV shows, etc; feeling isolated or dissatisfied with life even though technically all your fundamental needs are being met.
I believe every one of my peers, with very rare exceptions, feels at least a few of these things on a regular basis. Now on the brink of joining the working world, with student life an increasingly distant memory, I find myself becoming more and more vulnerable to Affluenza. I admit to being a bit surprised at this; I am not very materialistic, am fairly media-savvy and very selective about what I consume; I prefer the medieval escapism of Game of Thrones to the hideous, cartoon image of consumerism gone awry in Sex and the City. But the fact is, living in the heart of London, there is no escaping that the world I live in makes susceptibility to Affluenza virtually guaranteed.
Somehow, spending time earlier this year in a tiny, dull, unfashionable and slow-paced town in France, my stress levels dropped considerably. Yet returning to London with billboards and endless shops thrust in my face, and looking at companies, job applications, salaries, adverts telling me what I NEED to buy, what will make me so much more FABULOUS and HAPPY… I found myself coming down with an acute case of Afflu’, including side-effects of over-stimulation and exhaustion. I tried looking back to a time when I was not racked with the same anxieties, and turns out it was not so long ago.
Could Switzerland be the answer to my Affleunza-riddled woes? Of course I have no idea what working life in Switzerland is actually like. Perhaps it is just as afflicted as the City, and this blog should be entitled “The Swiss ERASMUS Vaccine” (but in light of recent developments, that’s fast becoming obsolete). All I know is that as a student there, and to a lesser extent as a student in England, I was virtually symptom-free. For a start, there is not much of a consumer culture in Suisse; and if there is, it’s too damned expensive for me, so my shopping options drastically shrunk, along with my partying and eating-out temptations. The people around me were not particularly materialistic (as students in a restrictively expensive country, we had no choice). We were all students with no agenda apart from studying and having fun. All in the same boat, we could not afford expensive status symbols, and had no need of them anyhow.
The country was tranquil and beautiful and safe and clean. We had easy access to breathtakingly beautiful nature. We were all foreigners, so we had to focus on our similarities and laugh at our differences, rather than judge each other for them. I spent my money on things like travelling and skiing (no matter how disastrously that turned out); things that enriched me as a person, rather than cluttered my room or damaged my health. I did not feel pressure to slather my face in make up and dress like a Pussycat Doll when I went out. With a limited baggage allowance I wore the same clothes again and again and again (and again) but (as far as I could tell) the people around me judged me more on who I was than what I wore or what school I had been to (probably because nobody had heard of it TBH). None of us had real jobs and there was very little prestige-based rivalry.
Nobody I knew owned a TV and with limited exposure to advertising, along with Switzerland’s classy, muted society (lack of big, flashy displays of wealth) and laidback attitude, I feel I was quite well insulated from the effects of Affluenza. I was living in the moment, appreciating the gifts of today and though concerned with my immediate social climate, was not thinking of my position (or “status”) in the wider world. I had the time and energy to cultivate my personal relationships.
I used to think the problem was London, but actually, judging by what a friend from Berlin has been telling me, it is more to do with the need to please people. Affluenza is all about how you are relative to other people, and how people see you (hipster culture in Berlin is a perfect example of how people derive their self-value from what they consume and the image they project). You want to impress people, and perhaps feel that you are better than them. What good is a flashy sports car if nobody will ever see it but you? Would we bother with expensive clothes if we never wore them in the presence of others?
I do not doubt that Switzerland, home of designer watches and über-banks galore, is also affected by Affluenza but somehow the importance placed on nature (skiing, hiking, etc) and old-fashioned values (family, farming) seems to act as a vaccine of sorts. It’s so chilled out there, if people were judging me, I didn’t notice. So much of most people’s anxiety is directed outward, and is concerned with the opinions of others. For example: instead of thinking “am I healthy?” people wonder “do they think I’m fat?” Rather than “will consuming this contribute to my welfare and development as a human being”, we have “will consuming this make me look cool and fit the image I want people to have of me?”
I realise this has turned into a long rant veering away from the title, but the point I am trying to make is, perhaps we can learn something from the Swiss way, as I did whilst living there. Let’s get back to basics and focus on what truly matters: family and friends. Being in nature often. Accepting hard work with humility. Chilling the fuck out. Of course your peer group has a large effect on how Affluenza-afflicted you might be. Ditch those shallow bastards if they’re making you feel bad. I say forget your phony celebrities, stop feeling entitled to some kind of contrived, glamorous existence, and stop seeking validation through spending money. Perhaps focus your energies on adding some actual value to the world around you, rather than trying your best to make that world admire/envy/accept you by mindlessly consuming what other people tell you to. Vaccinate yourself.