Affluenza Summary

Wann, de Graaf, Naylor


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Affluenza Summary

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Affluenza: How Overconsumption is Killing Us – And How to Fight Back (2002), non-fiction book by authors John De Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor, centers on epidemic—“a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” Reissued and updated twice, in 2005 and 2014, to reflect current events, the book addresses the way problems arise from this condition, including loneliness, overwork, and family conflict. It also looks at how affluenza led to the Great Recession of 2008, offering new ways to measure social success and health, and policy suggestions that may lessen the impact of affluenza. Exploring themes of greed, societal pressure, and how best to be truly happy, Affluenza was an immediate bestseller and entered the public consciousness more widely when the title condition was used as a criminal defense in a 2014 trial involving a teenage drunk driver.

The book begins by looking at the causes and symptoms of affluenza, saying that its symptoms can be seen in the widespread emptiness that people feel despite having never had more. Affluenza has its roots in the near-religious obsession with economic expansion, but it is wreaking a terrible price on the American psyche. The first symptom of affluenza is shopping fever, seen in mega-malls, consumer debt, and personal bankruptcy as millions struggle to pay their debts. Material expectations are higher than ever, but people are suffering stress and possession overload. This goes hand in hand with what is known as time famine, where instead of technology giving us more time, it has given us less. The leisure class is harried, as time pressures weaken marriages and undermine family life. While the free market is argued to be the best system for delivering goods at low cost, it is also putting us into a box as consumers without anything to balance that out. Affluenza is most pronounced in childhood, as marketers become more effective and less scrupulous at marketing to children who are less able to distinguish between messages. Parents fall into the role of gatekeeper, and marketers often play on that, portraying parents as out of touch. Children are afflicted with affluenza early.

The next section focuses on de-individualization. The book argues that affluenza undermines community and causes the shrinking of social capital. Membership in groups and religious institutions is in steady decline, and citizenship is being replaced by consumerism and branding. We become used to paying others to take care of our responsibilities as part of our consumption. Religions see a purpose in human life, something that is sorely lacking in consumerism. Affluenza robs people of a sense of purpose and meaning; many people are bored, despite all the fancy objects they have in their life. What they really seek is something to give their life meaning. The gap between rich and poor is growing, and the constant search for more is hurting the earth. Chemicals and artificial modifications are used to drive costs down. The book advocates replacing the industrial revolution with an era of ecological design and caution. The book argues that we have turned every aspect of life into a transaction, which leads to burnout due to the intense workweek it requires to maintain. The need to have what we want becomes everything, while the real key to a happier life is to want what we have.

The next segment focuses on what the authors call the ornamental culture, or a culture focused on exterior trappings over inner meaning. It argues that affluenza is not a new disease, but has occurred in cultures going back to ancient times; the ancient Greeks and Hebrews argued against it. The early American colonists rejected it as well; the American Revolution was in many ways a rejection of decadent British nobility. This changed with the industrial revolution, fully taking hold in American culture in the aftermath of World War II. The focus on celebrity and image drives the culture, and the public relations industry reinforces it. Large corporations with a stake in promoting affluenza hold stock in the media and push it to promote their ends. Thus, we wind up making our day-to-day decisions based on incomplete information slanted towards a specific position.

The final segment focuses on treatment and prevention. The authors’ suggested treatment begins with rest or taking a break from keeping up with the neighbors on the latest possessions. They suggest joining support groups for cutting expenses, finding direct contact with nature again, and enjoying the simplicity of life, and making conscious consumer decisions to support products with a clean environmental footprint. The authors say movements promoting a return to simplicity can help with this transition. When it comes to preventing affluenza from taking hold in the first place, the book recommends doing research into products before making the decision to purchase them. It also makes policy suggestions, such as abolishing the forty-hour workweek and moving towards a system like Europe’s. The book suggests new taxes that would encourage companies to make responsible choices, and new restrictions on ads aimed towards children in the way tobacco and alcohol advertising are regulated.

John de Graaf is an American author, documentarian, and the executive director of the advocacy organization Take Back Your Time, which advocates against overwork.

David Wann is an American author of ten books focusing on sustainable lifestyles and designs, as well as the producer of twenty-five documentaries.

Thomas Naylor was an American economist and professor, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University, and the author of thirty books. He was a cofounder of the Second Vermont Republic movement.