Earlier this year, clinical psychologist and well-known media figure, Dr Oliver James, published his new book 'Affluenza - How to be successful and stay sane'. The book caused a furore in some circles; James is no stranger to media controversy, however; it could be said that he actively courts it in order to focus attention on some very pressing social issues.
James presented at the recent the Open University Psychological Society's Psychology of Well-being Conference and despite (or because of?) getting the Saturday night slot,he didn't mince his words - his theory, stated simply, is that putting a high value on possessions, money, appearances (physical and social) and fame is at the heart of the rise in depression, anxiety and substance abuse in the English-speaking western countries. Not surprisingly, this seems to have upset quite a lot of people in the UK. We live in a democracy after all, and we're mature enough to make our own choices, aren't we? Who wants to be accused of "Selfish Capitalism"?
It's difficult to argue against the figures - World Health Organization studies of mental illness across both English speaking western countries and non-English speaking ones reveal a substantial and statistically significant rise in mental illness (as define above) in the former (average 23%) compared to the latter (11.5%). According toJames's theory, this rise is due to our increasing love of all things material.
Has materialism risen in English-speaking western countries - undoubtedly yes, just look around you. Does that prove, however, that materialism of the type James describes, even if it is rampant, causes mental illness?
Research (e.g. Tim Kasser ) suggests that there are 4 basic needs which must be met in order for psychological well-being to exist:
1) emotional security
2) feeling effective
3) community (friends, social groups etc)
The question which needs to be answered is "does a focus on materialism prevent these needs being met, and if so how?". Common sense would say yes - a simple example is that materialists get their gratification externally - but is there scientific research that incontrovertibly shows this? James's money is obviously on the answer being affirmative; Affluenza was markedly short on academic references, so he's writing a new book which aims to lay out all the research evidence to support his Selfish Capitalism theory.
When I asked him after the lecture when this book would be published, however, he replied not as quickly as he'd hoped - so perhaps the research isn't as clear-cut as Positive Psychologists think.
If you want to see and hear James in action, register and watch this RSA lecture.