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A contagious middle class virus

Oliver James

Most people in Western, English-speaking world, define their lives through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity, and those things are making them miserable because they impede the meeting of our fundamental needs.

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We need to feel secure, emotionally and materially, we need to feel part of a community, to give and receive from family, neighbours and friends, we need to feel competent and valued, and we need to feel autonomous and authentic, masters of our own destinies to some degree.

Affluenza is a virus that attacks all these needs. If you constantly compare yourself and your possession list to that of others, you can never come out ahead - there's always someone you know who has more than you. And to cope with the unhappiness, you have to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. If you're always worrying about advancing your career, you make less effort to keep up with family and friends who can't directly help you reach your goals. And, by creating an artificial list of false wants, you put yourself at the mercy of ouside factors rather than building your own autonomous self. More books on Mind

Religion is a powerful vaccine. Religious people less likely to be materialistic, to abuse alcohol or drugs, and are more likely to describe themselves as happy. The only religious people who aren't happy are the ones who use religion as a way to cope with stress or enemies - the ones who see belief as an investment("prayer will make me successful")

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The most strongly materialistic people are often using possessions to give them a sense of security they lacked in growing up. Often had parents who were cold and over-controlling and punitive, and who's approval was based on performance.

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Constant exposure to desirable people leads to the Contrast Effect - you start to judge normal people by standards of the very attractive ones. Clever study of male teachers at schools and universities found that the divorce rate was highest among primary school teachers. Constant exposure to women at their most nubile and attractive age was causing them to see their wives as less attractive.

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British study found that men with income of £50,000 were actually unhappier than those earning £35,000, perhaps because they were so chained to an expensive lifestyle that they it was all work and no play.

Nearly all of us have a TV, DVD player, washing machine, fridge and cell phone - all things which have become ubiquitous only in the last 30 or 40 years. But we feel pressured to buy the latest version, or a bigger TV or a flasher fridge or cellphone that does pretty much the same thing as a more basic version, but costs a lot more. And, we literally have more stuff than we know what to do with - self-storage units are growing by 30% a year.

One type called Marketing Character - place little value on beauty, freedom or inner harmony. Their main pursuits are social recognition, comfort, and an exciting life. They compare themselves obsessively and enviously with others, always hoping to have more and better things than their peers.

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The trap of being highly paid. "I'm being well-paid, but I'm thoroughly pissed-off. My job is not intrinsically satisfying at all. I've just got to get the courage to leave, but I'm not sure how." and aother "I can't possibly stop. I can't get off the treadmill of earning money. For the last four years I've been doing a job I hate." "I sat there last night, watching the uber-yuppie who's my boss, someone who's basically done nothing but shout at people and is ignorant of our craft, win the 'achievement of the year' award. The whole thing was appalling, if quite funny." "When I was offered this job it was such good pay. So like a little rat running through the right gate in the maze I thought 'I can't turn it down' and I've never been so unhappy in my life."

(Author got a contract which allowed him to roll around the world ostensibly interviewing people in different settings, which he used as a series of case studies to illustrate his points. Problem I had with this was, he got to New Zealand, and apparently all he got was one person, a well-off Auckland lawyer, who said"Whilst he is not unhappy himself, he knew a great many Aucklanders who are", and that apparently summed up the Kiwis. Hello? He did much the same with Russians - an interview with Boris, the 29 yo manager of a large investment company, yielded the supercilious opinion that the author was a better person because he hadn't had a lot of quick flings with readily available women.)

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