Are Your “Things” Destroying Your Health?


The authors of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, define Affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” This metaphor of a disease is an apposite characterization of a malignant condition that is eating into the entrails of America. Americans’ insatiable urge to acquire things, whether or not they are necessary, has indeed reached epidemic proportions. It has caused severe social and cultural dislocations and warped the basic values of American society.

Affluenza is based on two highly regarded documentaries, Affluenza and Escape From Affluenza, telecast on the PBS channel in the late 1990s. John De Graff and his co-authors Thomas Naylor, an economist, and David Wann, an environmental scientist, conducted research for three years thereafter, updated data and wrote the book with several additional stories. The book provides compelling statistical details about the havoc caused by unbridled consumerism and offers a cogent analysis of its causes and consequences.

One of the ways in which capitalism thrives is by constantly generating “needs” among people. While some needs are legitimate, others are not. The main contention of Affluenza is that “if we don’t begin to reject our culture’s incessant demands to ‘buy now’, we will pay later in ways we can scarcely imagine.” Further, as the authors put it: “[T]he message of the book isn’t to stop buying; it’s to buy carefully and consciously with full attention to the real benefits and costs of your purchases, remembering always that the best things in life aren’t things.”

As simple as this thesis might seem, it just cannot be overstated. Affluenza has caused a variety of problems, ranging from marital problems to chronic stress, factors that cannot be overlooked. American spending is totally out of sync with the needs of the rest of the world and results in the depletion of precious resources. The book points out: “According to the United Nations Environment Program, Americans spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything!”

Americans spend nearly $6 trillion a year, more than $21,000 per person, most of it on consumer goods, which account for two-thirds of the recent growth in the U.S. economy. We spend more on shoes, jewelry and watches ($80 billion) than on higher education ($65 billion).

Shopping has become the most preferred activity of Americans with 70 percent of us visiting shopping malls each week. Americans now typically spend six hours a week shopping and only 40 minutes playing with our own children. One poll found that 93 percent of teenage American girls rate shopping as their favorite activity. Interestingly, only a quarter of mall shoppers come with a specific product in mind; the rest come just to shop. Impulse shopping, Internet shopping, shopping to amuse oneself, shopping as a form of therapy, these are now part of the core cultural values of mainstream Americans. Small wonder, then, that there are now twice as many shopping centers as high schools in America.

Equally egregious is the fact that shopping is almost always done with borrowed money!

Most Americans now have five or more credit cards, for a nation-wide total of well over a billion cards. The average American household carried $7,564 in credit card debt during 2000. Even college students carry an average debt of $2,500. Credit card debts tripled in the 1990s, resulting in a steep escalation of personal bankruptcies. In 1980, as many as 313,000 people declared bankruptcy. Now, more than 1.5 million people file for bankruptcy each year, a figure greater than the number of people who graduate from college annually.


Some consequences of the acquisitive mania are apparent while others are not. The authors have incisively assayed the patent and latent ill-effects of consumerism. One thing most apparent is that in spite of all the goodies Americans possess, happiness and contentment still elude us.  Otherwise, we would not be exerting ourselves beyond endurable limits. In light of the phenomenal prosperity of America, this statement might seem absurd. As the authors explain, it is true that since the Second World War, productivity in the United States has more than doubled, leading to a doubling of consumption as well. Yet, it is equally true that countries that have the most prosperity also have the most stress.

Stress can come from plain greed masquerading as the “noble” desire for a higher standard of living. It could be the result of being overworked and constantly pressed for time. Americans suffer from all these and much more. As the Harvard economist Juliet Schor has argued, full-time

American workers now toil 160 hours – one full month - more on average than they did in 1969. According to another study, American couples now find just 12 minutes a day to converse with each other. Thus, the notion that prosperity leads to leisure has been debunked. On the contrary, it is clear that economic growth inevitably leads to scarcity of time.

Americans lack time because we work more. We work more because we want more. The authors observe insightfully: “[A]s a culture… we have chosen money over time.”

The most corrosive impact of consumerism has been on human relationships. It flourishes by promoting a use-and- throw culture, a culture of planned obsolescence. The authors rightly posit that “attitudes formed in relation to products eventually get transferred to people as well.” Just as things are discarded after use, people too are cast off if they lose the capacity to participate in the cycle of consumption. In a consumerist culture, therefore, one’s master status is linked exclusively to one’s ability to buy. When God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and gave him the Ten Commandments, the final commandment was Do Not Covet.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” - Exodus 20:17(NIV)

Did the Lord give this commandment because He didn’t want us to have anything? By giving this commandment did He hope to spare us suffering? Increasing consumption is slowly sucking the essence out of humanity. Craving instant gratification, we feel entitled to have everything now. Credit is extended to make sure you can have what you want now and pay for it later. We are willing to spend the rest of our lives paying off that which we purchased today. Retirement will be obsolete as people spend their whole lives defining who they are by what they own. The need for more causes stress and stress causes illness. Stress also diminishes the quality of life by reducing feelings of pleasure and accomplishment, often threatening relationships.


North Americans are workaholics and don’t know how to relax. In other countries rest, relaxation and family are emphasized. Many countries have rest time or “siesta” in the middle of the work day. Numerous European countries allow extended family leave for both parents after the birth of a child, have shorter work weeks and give more vacation days per year than American companies allow.

The debt to income ratio for most U.S. citizens is astronomical. In the 2005 fiscal year alone, 1,748,421 Americans declared bankruptcy, and that doesn’t include businesses that did the same. We have become accustomed to having stuff we can’t afford; in fact, we feel entitled to have it. Our national deficit goes way beyond imagination yet we keep trying to get more. This sense of

entitlement and the pursuit of “things” can lead to overwhelming debt, strain on the family, divorce, little or no retirement and depression, which are all triggers for deadly stress that can lead to health problems including death.


The pursuit of “things” damages the family in ways such as taking the mothers out of the home and divorce. Most families in America (those headed by a husband and wife) can only put food on the table if both parents work. Not that long ago, mothers in the workforce were an exception.

Now, mothers that stay at home are the exception. Society says that choosing to stay home and raise children isn’t supposed to be as satisfying as having a corporate job. Mothers are made to feel like they aren’t important.

When mothers work, often times their children are left to fend for themselves and the television or computer becomes the babysitter. If the mother chooses to put her children in daycare while she works, the children learn values and life lessons from the caregiver, not their parents. The basis behind the “American Dream” is you are supposed to be able to come to America and with a little hard work, you can have more than you ever dreamed. Contentment is a dying concept.

Where we are today and what we have is never good enough. Our children grow up seeing their parents put emphasis, time and energy into work and not on the children themselves. Parents are not looking inward to make their lives better for their children, they are looking externally. This perpetuates the idea that “things” are more valuable than people. This message is so profound that we actually begin to believe that we cannot possibly be “special” if we do not “have.” Not having parental influence in the home may be one of the reasons our children grow up to have no regard or respect for themselves or others. This is proven in our ever increasing crime rate and corporate corruption.

Divorce - Money problems are cited as the number one cause for divorce. Many times one person is good with money and the other isn’t and the couple ends up deeply in debt, or both people are bad with money and the couple ends up filing bankruptcy. Couples who marry today

have a 50% chance of divorce with the average first time marriage lasting only 8 years. Each subsequent marriage produces higher percentages for failure. Many states offer a “quickie” divorce, without requiring the effort needed to fix a marriage. The states that require mandatory

counseling and waiting periods before granting divorces have much lower rates of divorce than the states that have no such requirements. Divorce puts even more strain on the family. The amount of single parent families in America is at an all time high.


Poor health also goes hand in hand with our pursuit of “things” and the expectation of instant gratification. Fast food, sedentary lifestyles, and technological advancements have taken the effort out of daily existence. We become more efficient and can do more in less time, going

non-stop to keep up with the rat race. Without rest and relaxation and an emphasis on self, stress wreaks havoc on the body. As a society, we don’t take time to “smell the roses” we are too busy trying to buy the roses!

Divorce, debt, and poor health have become “normal” to many people and these factors become the precursors for the depression epidemic which seems to be running rampant through our society. Our doctors are more than happy to prescribe a plethora of mood altering substances to help our symptoms without actually targeting the source of the depression. Again our instant gratification mentality comes into play. We would rather take a pill to start feeling better right now than take the time to embark on an inward journey that could heal our psyche. Affluenza has created people who are “over” everything: overworked, over-tired, over-weight, over-extended, overmedicated and most of all over-stressed.

What Does Chronic Stress Do To the Body? The body can live in a state of stress for only so long before it begins to systematically shut down. Stress can be external like pain and hunger or internal like infections, inflammation, worry and anxiety. Stressors can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). In response to acute stress, the brain activates the hypothalamic-pituitaryadrenal (HPA) system which releases steroid hormones (glucocorticoids) including Cortisol, and neurotransmitters (catecholamines) such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (or adrenaline). These substances trigger rapid breathing, increase blood flow, dampen the immune system, and shut down the digestive process as well as any other bodily function considered non-essential for fight or flight. If stress is present for too long, all parts of the body’s stress mechanisms (the brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles) become chronically over or under activated, eventually producing physical or psychological damage.

Heart disease can be triggered by stress. Mental stress is as serious a trigger for angina as is physical stress. Acute stress has been associated with higher risk of heart rhythm abnormalities and heart attacks. Elevated levels of stress can increase blood pressure and in some instances contribute to stroke. Because chronic stress blunts the immune system, a person experiencing stress is more suscep tible to infections and immune disorders. Cancer has been linked to stress, especially in people who “hold in” their emotions. Gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers,  irritable bowel and inflammatory bowel disease, weight gain or loss, diabetes, pain, sleep disturbances, sexual and reproductive dysfunction, memory, concentration and learning disabilities, allergies, skin disorders, hair loss and periodontal disease all have links to a life full of stress.

Stress contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle as well. People experiencing chronic stress frequently seek relief with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, abnormal eating patterns, and generally become “couch potatoes” opting for television instead of exercise. These damaging self-destructive habits only compound the physiologic effects of stress itself. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating; a sedentary routine, unhealthy diet, alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse promote heart disease, interfere with sleep patterns, and lead to increased tension levels. Drinking four or five cups of coffee, for example, can cause changes in blood pressure and stress hormone levels similar to those produced by chronic stress. Animal fats, simple sugars and salt are also known contributors to health problems. Anxiety disorders and depression almost always accompany an unhealthy lifestyle.


1. Live Simply To Simply Live - It is time to wake up and take a look around. We have overly complicated just about every aspect of everything we do. We are sick and tired and don’t realize why. There is a backlash going on and many people are choosing a simple lifestyle over the rat race they have been running. More and more people are turning their focus inward to find satisfaction and self-worth, replacing the idea that to be fulfilled we need to acquire more. The desire to give is replacing the need to take. A movement is afoot.

Simplifying your life may seem impossible in a world of type A personalities, fast food, rush hour traffic, daunting credit card debt, and mass production. While we are running around in circles, we still can’t find happiness. Ironically, what we are looking for is right under our noses. Our focus on the external has kept us from looking within to find true meaning and happiness.  Simplify your life by taking inventory and examine what is truly important. Our lives have become so cluttered and noisy that many of us do not have the ability to define what we think we need and what we want.

How do we make life simpler so that we can have less stress, save money, live healthier and spend more time doing what we truly enjoy? The first thing we must do is become painfully honest with ourselves. What is important? Spending more quality time with your family or working two jobs to buy a big screen television? Having more time for you or over-scheduling your day? Saving money to provide a financially secure future for you and your family or spending everything you have and then some? Do you want to reduce stress or run on adrenaline?

All of these questions will help you define a goal for a simpler life. Inner peace, self-reliance and self-satisfaction can take precedence over consumption, breaking the bondage of a consumer based society.

2. De-clutter – Define Need vs. Want

“Earth provides enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.” – Gandhi

Look around, what do we really need? Food, water and shelter are all we really need to exist. Everything else is a luxury. If you are honest, everything above and beyond those essentials are wants. Examine the extras you have in your life. Are they helping you achieve specific goals? Do you really need a bigger house, a new car, 10 pairs of black shoes? Do you have to surround  yourself with gadgets? Are these “things” making your life easier or allowing you to spend more time with your family? Will they help you find peace? Are you taking on extra responsibilities to support your lifestyle or is your lifestyle supporting your responsibilities? Cut out the clutter in your life, scale back and stop spending. Recycle or reuse items, tap into your creativity. You might find great satisfaction in creating something you can use. Or, you may find you do not need the things you previously thought you couldn’t live without. Everything in your life should be useful, bring you joy, or both. Once you move beyond materialistic values and become more outwardly simple, you might discover an inwardly rich lifestyle. Move away from a high-consumption, money-orientated civilization and reach for inner growth. You can live a non-consumerist lifestyle based upon being and becoming, not having.

Living simply does not have to equate to living cheaply. You obviously will need money in your life. The idea, however, is to take the emphasis off the importance of money. No truer words have been spoken than “You can’t take it with you.” You might spend more today to save over the long run. Think about your purchases, be deliberate and not reactive. Justify every purchase you make and analyze the reasons for buying. Spending money on the things that will last is deliberate and smart. Don’t waste your hard earned money on mass-produced products that will fall apart in a matter of months or a few years. Spend wisely, not following trends. Trends always what you bought today obsolete.

3. Evaluate Your Work Environment - We are here for such a short time, we should be enjoying every minute of every day. Are you spending 80% of your time at a job that makes you crazy doing something you hate? Are you able to see what you are contributing to the whole, are you getting a sense of shared responsibility and rewards? Or do you feel like you are spinning your wheels so your boss can reap the rewards and fatten the profit margin? If you exercise self-discipline so that you rely less on large, complex institutions and spend less, you may find you can pursue a career that you enjoy. You can get by on less. Consumerism has sold us a bill of goods; we don’t have to buy it.

Conclusion: Learn From History

Living simply is not a new concept. On the contrary, it was the only way of life up until the last century. There are still communities today that have opted for simpler lives. The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish have lived simply for generations, focusing not on possessions but instead on spirituality. They emphasize the “plain” and only seek necessities because they understand that the pursuit of “wants” takes the focus off the truly important aspects of life. All of the major religions of the world have warned of the dangers of the pursuit of material wealth. They teach you should only aim at the minimum wealth needed to maintain life with your biggest emphasis on spiritual growth. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse and Gandhi all said if we make material wealth our paramount aim, it would lead to disaster. Unselfishness, love for other people and inner peace are the keys to happiness. The Bible warns us: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.” – 1Timothy 6:9 (NIV)

Once we begin to cut through the clutter in our lives, we realize how much stress we live with and have accepted as normal. Stress is not a normal state of living. We need to learn to deal with stresses in our lives so that we can focus on more important issues and become free from the shackles that have held us in bondage for so long. We should be able to enjoy retirement knowing we lived a full, rich life, making sound decisions along the way - not spending our golden years paying for the folly of our youth. Tap into your creativity and learn to simplify your life, you may discover riches you never imagined. You may not be keeping up with the Jones’, but you won’t notice because you will be too busy teaching your grandchildren how to plant a garden. [This article was written by McAlvany Health Alert editor John Frye.]

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