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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 January 2008, 11:55 GMT
Misery creep
Escalator sale

By Brendan O'Neill

Owning too much stuff drives us into a spiral of sadness, says a new book. Or is the real problem "misery-creep", where everyday unhappiness is being rebranded as depression?

We all know the old saying: "Riches won't make you happy." But is it possible that riches - or even aspiring to be rich and wanting to live a Footballers' Wife-style life of luxury - might make us mentally ill?

Clinical psychologist Oliver James claims in his new book The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza, that "selfish capitalism" (the kind of capitalism we have in Britain) is making us sick. Literally.

He says the emergence of selfish capitalism, first under Margaret Thatcher and later Tony Blair, has led to a "startling increase in the incidence of mental illness".

We might live more comfortable and stuff-filled lives than our forebears did, but James believes the rise of materialism has come with a high price tag attached - widespread anxiety and depression.

Experts believe 10% of Britons are compulsive shoppers
On the surface, we seem better off than earlier generations. For example, home ownership in Britain has risen dramatically in recent decades. In 1953, the proportion of owner-occupiers of homes in England was 32%. That figure rose to 43% in 1961, 51% in 1971, and it peaked at 75% in 1981. Today around 70% of homes in England are owner-occupied.

In the past, having a TV was seen as an indicator of wealth and class. Now, according to a study carried out by marketing and information group CACI, the average UK home has 4.7 television sets. A study by Lloyds TSB found that seven out of 10 children have a TV in their rooms and half of them have a DVD player too.

And like a nation of Inspector Gadgets, we have stacks of devices that make life more pleasant. In the past families were lucky if they owned a gramophone and a few dusty records to play on it. Today 17% of web users in Britain - and that's a lot of people - own an iPod and can listen to sweet music any time, any place.

'Unrealistic desires'

As the capitalist economy has grown, life seems to have improved: cheap food is widely available (our grandparents can only have dreamt of getting two chickens for the equivalent of a fiver in their local supermarket), and most of us own our homes, drive cars, and have TVs, DVDs and MP3s.

Can it really be the case that as we've become more comfortable, we've also become mentally ill?

"The citizens of selfish capitalist countries are twice as likely to suffer from a mental illness as the citizens of countries in mainland western Europe, which practise 'unselfish capitalism'," argues James.

A woman shopping
We're 'bombarded with messages to buy, buy, buy'
He says studies show that 23% of Americans, Britons, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians - all English-speaking "selfish capitalist" nations - suffered mental ill-health in the past 12 months. But only 11.5% of Germans, Italians, French, Belgians, Spaniards and Dutch experienced mental problems.

The message is clear, he says: "Selfish capitalism is bad for your mental health."

The main problem is that where the average English-speaking person's real wage has broadly remained the same since the 1970s, he or she is now constantly bombarded with messages to buy, buy, buy, and aspire to a Posh-and-Becks quality of life, according to James.

"It is not economic inequality between the rich and the working classes that causes mental illness, though that certainly still exists," says Mr James. "It is the combination of that inequality with an all-pervasive consumerist culture which constantly tells people 'it could be you' you could be a well-off winner too."

Definitions of illness

"The media, advertising, reality TV shows and so on, they give people unrealistic aspirations that they simply cannot meet with their wages and living standards. As a result, people get sucked into competitiveness and workaholism.

"We end up tirelessly striving for material wealth and valuing it over family and friendships. This really heaps pressure on people, damaging their health."

Yet others are suspicious of the notion that Britain is in the grip of "affluenza". Simon Wessely, professor of epidemiological and liaison psychiatry at King's College, London, believes that cultural factors, not capitalism itself, have created a situation where more people define themselves as mentally ill.

I would lay the blame less at the door of Margaret Thatcher's selfish capitalism, and more at the door of Richard and Judy or Oprah
Professor Simon Wessely
"In this country, rates of actual mental illness are not increasing," he says. "Studies by the Office for National Statistics, repeated over a decade, do not show an increase in all neurotic disorders, depressive disorders or depression."

"It is true that rates of self-reported symptoms are on the rise," says Wessely, but that has to be seen in a context where "more human experiences" are seen as illnesses nowadays.

"In my trade, for example, states of sadness are now seen as 'depression', shyness has become 'social phobia', and all sorts of variations in childhood temperament, personality, emotions and behaviour have become characterised as diseases that need treatment, be it Asperger's autism or ADHD."

Mr Wessely believes that this "therapy culture" means that people now regard as abnormal things that "previous generations regarded as part and parcel of normal variations in personality and emotion". So what earlier generations saw as an everyday struggle to make ends meet might now be referred to as stress or workaholism.


"I would lay the blame less at the door of Margaret Thatcher's selfish capitalism, and more at the door of Richard and Judy or Oprah," says Mr Wessely.

Daniel Ben-Ami, author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, agrees: "The key difference between the Anglo-Saxon countries and continental Europe is that the medicalisation of social problems has not gone as far in Europe as it has in Britain or America."

Mr Ben-Ami argues that the "affluenza" argument, where unrealistic desires for wealth are seen as the harbinger of mental health problems, shows how inequality has been redefined.

Society is 'based around consumption'
"Today it's widely assumed that the solution to inequality is restraining growth and consumption, in order to protect people from ill-health. In the past, tackling inequality would have meant calling for more growth and increased consumption for the mass of society."

Yet consumerism can be seriously addictive for some. Some experts believe 10% of Britons, and possibly 20% of British women, are manic, compulsive shoppers whose condition can lead to family break-ups, depression and in some instances suicide. An American pharmaceutical firm is developing a pill to help wean shopaholics off their addiction.

In a book titled Stop Me Because I Can't Stop Myself, a compulsive shopper called "Gloria" describes how she shopped online for six to eight hours a day, ending up in $80,000 of debt. She lost her job and split from her husband and checked into a psychiatric institution after "shopping ruined my family".

Oliver James remains convinced that rabid consumerism can have a detrimental impact on mental health. "It is time we valued what is truly important," he says, "rather than focusing society around competitiveness and consumption."

Below is a selection of comments:

It's definately true that the need to always aquire more things can make us discontent. But I think what is making us most depressed is lack of excercise and fresh air, which is all made worse my working at computers all day long and kids spending their time gaming etc rather than getting some physical activity. I recently went part time to spend more time with kids - I have very little income (Food doesn't seem very cheap to me) but the improvement in mood has been amazing. My kids have a roomful of toys but would much rather have a day down at the beach. Maybe a little less money, a little more life balance, and a little more fresh air is all that's really needed to make us happy.
KJane, Fife

I hate how companies can get away with bolstering their products to seem better or more vital than they really are and how advertisers use psychological leverage to force a product upon you. There was once a cereal whos motto was 'It's not for geeks' or my local beauty salon that boasts 'We can make you beautiful'. People aren't selfish capitalists, companies are and they must be stopped! People are vulnerable.
Aaron, Wales

I think this is more about community. Community and family spirit is slowly dying in this country and being replaced with a kind of emptiness which people then fill with something else, in many cases it's shopping, gadgets or constant self diagnosis.
Jeff, Norwich

Spot on, I couldn't agree more with the idea of "therapy culture". It seems to be politically incorrect these days to tell "ill" people to just get on with it because it's part of life!
Hannah, Cardiff

Britain certainly has a insatiable desire for cheap tat from China !
Adrian Mugridge, Chester, UK

James's argument has more holes than a sieve. Mental health diagnoses will differ between cultures - where's the evidence that the national statistics are comparable? How come Germany, Holland and France are not "selfish consumerist" economies when they also have the pervasive advertising seen in the UK? What about the other big differences between theses economies (NHS, home ownership, employment patterns) - how come these don't contribute to differences in mental health levels? It sounds to me like James is fitting the facts to the argument, not the other way round.
Mike, Gloucester

So, you claim that 10% of the population are manic shoppers, and that it may be the case that 20% of women are manic shoppers. If we presume that the ratio of men to women is 50:50 then you appear to be clamming that it may be the case that all manic shoppers are women. I'd like to criticise that, but it matches my experience, so I won't!
Tom Haines, York, UK

In my own personal economic downturn at the moment and living within my means. I've learned where the real costs of living are and they are mostly associated with keeping the house over my head and car on the road. What I cannot fathom is where I spent my money before I pulled in the belt. It must have been thousands of pounds each year but I have no idea on what. I would know now because I keep a close financial record of all my spending and earning. When my economic upturn returns I won't go back to my old ways because I've had to learn the difference between need and want. I agree with the article that wanting keeps you moving forward, getting what you want doesn't always live up to expectations.
Trina, UK

As a counsellor I have seen a dramtic increase, over the past decade, in the pathologisation of what it is to be human. Part of the the human condition is to be sad, anxious but this does not necesaarily mean mental illness or indeed an increase in mental illness. However I agree in that Psycho Social factors, i.e Consumerism affect us, humans are reactive to their enviroment which is then manifested in behaviours/emotional states. It might be that there is a supposed increase due to the increased reporting and consulting with people such as myself within the profession. I think Society and the above factors all play a part.
gareth , leicester

Clearly there are far too many variables to draw the conclusion that "selfish-capitalism" is the cause of mental health problems. How exactly is Capitalism different in mainland Europe to in the UK anyway???
Will, Brighton

Sounds interesting, I would buy the book to read more but I'm afraid that owning it would drive me into a spiral of sadness.
Dave Williams, Warrington

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