A contribution by the social issues team

As the end of the year draws near and we enter the festive season, we need to brace ourselves for a fresh outbreak of the modern disease of affluenza.

Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the Australian dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
(Hamilton & Denniss, 2005)

At its core, the festive season is meant to bring out the best in us - whether we celebrate the birth of Christ, Hannukah, or simply the end of another year, it's a time for getting together with families and friends, for reflection and contemplation, and for thinking of others, including people less fortunate than ourselves. Yet paradoxically, it has become a time that also brings out the worst aspects of modern society - the festive season morphs into the silly season, or even the ugly season.

The silly season is a time of over-consumption, high expectations, materialism, debt, waste, and stress. We are bombarded with messages telling us to buy more things we don't really need - a defining symptom of addiction to wealth and over-consumption known as affluenza (Hamilton & Denniss, 2005).

According to Hamilton and Denniss, many people believe that money and possessions hold the key to a happier life. In our society, success is measured overwhelmingly by material affluence. Our obsession with material progress and consumption, however, has significant costs. Eckersley (2004) lists among these increasing costs the destruction of the natural environment, as well as social inequality leading to deeper and more entrenched divisions within society. Psychosocial costs include health problems due to overwork, difficulties achieving work-family balance, a struggle to find meaning in life, and reduced individual and community wellbeing.

In the psychological literature, materialism (or consumerism) is reported to breed not happiness but dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, isolation and alienation (Kasser, 2002). The more materialistic we are, the poorer our quality of life. Indeed, studies on wellbeing have shown that, beyond a certain threshold, money makes next to no difference to levels of happiness (Eckersley, 2004).

Despite psychological evidence to the contrary, marketing continues to promote the myth that having more will make us happier. At Christmas time, they go into overdrive. The marketers' task is to keep consumers feeling deprived and dissatisfied with what they've got and who they are. We end up buying 'stuff' we truly don't need.

According to Hamilton and Denniss, the explosion of choice (intensified at Christmas time) spreads affluenza by creating desires, intensifying feelings of deprivation, and hastening obsolescence. People with affluenza don't know what they want, yet want everything. Whilst some choice is beneficial, there is evidence that too much can actually cause a decline in wellbeing.

Sadly, it is children who may bear the brunt of the silly season. Not only is a large percentage of gift buying focused on children, but advertisers are increasingly targeting children and relying on the nag factor ('pester power') to get parents to purchase products (Idell, 1998). Some psychologists are becoming alarmed at a new trend in advertising that depicts parents as obstacles for children to get around rather than as figures of authority. Advertising relies on the creation of discontent amongst children that is meant to be resolved if they consume more. What sort of dissatisfaction and unhappiness does this generate in children? Television advertising is a significant influence in children's lives and has been shown to influence their attitudes and consumption behaviour (APS, 2000). There is enormous pressure on children to consume.

Conclusion

Importantly, the end of the year is also a time for contemplation, reflection and review, and planning for the next year. Instead of waiting until after Christmas to make the (usually futile) New Year's resolutions, why not try to fashion your festive season in ways that bring your real visions for the future of your loved ones and for the planet into an enjoyable, liveable present?


References

Australian Psychological Society (2000). Media representation and responsibilities. APS Position Paper, Melbourne.

Eckersley, R. (2004). Well and good: How we feel and why it matters. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Hamilton, C., & Denniss, R. (2005). Affluenza - When too much is not enough. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Idell, C. (1998). The Nag Factor. Report commissioned by Western International Media, Los Angeles.

Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Tip for a sustainable festive season!

How about getting your workplace to organise an ethical, sustainable Kris Kringle this year, where gifts are chosen on the basis that they contribute to one or more of the following: equity of resources, ecologically sustainable practices, reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Gifts might include Fair Trade products, handmade or recycled gifts, sustainably produced non-animal tested products, a poem, or contributions to charitable organisations. Gifts could be selected from organisations such as Oxfam, Red Cross, Amnesty, the ACF or the Wilderness Society.

The benefits include:

  • Pleasure without hedonism
  • Support for the poor and disadvantaged
  • Contributing to sustainable living practices
  • Helping the survival of the Planet
  • Stimulating creative new gift ideas
  • Encouraging awareness, discussion and communication
  • Bringing multiple benefits to the recipient and the producer
  • Reducing 'Consumption Distress Syndrome'

The APS National Office will hold their first ethical Kris Kringle this year! Let us know how you get on in your own workplaces.