Oliver James

The author of Affluenza and the darling of the TV psychiatrist’s couch is underchallenged

Academia Economy Mental Illness Modern Life Overrated

Dr Oliver James is not only overrated, he is underchallenged, too. The telly-shrink has occasionally been mocked for his tittle-tattle and psycho-babble, but when it comes to the big stuff he gets away with murder. He says that western capitalism has produced a “low serotonin society” of people oppressed and depressed by the disease of “affluenza” and status anxiety, both features of the nastiness promoted by The Selfish Capitalist (the title of his slight 2008 book, published by Vermilion) and neo-liberal economics. He can’t remotely prove these things. Yet they seem to be widely accepted as a sort of mood music. 

Even the Tory modernisers largely fell for the affluenza argument. It fitted nicely with the remodelling work begun with their “blue is the new green” and “broken society” mantras. Perhaps when nasty Thatcherism has done the grim work of restoring our faltering path to growth, we will return to this kindly guff. 

Affluenza is the latest in a long series of accessorised anxieties, like the nuclear and population bombs. They can be worn, even flaunted, without much trouble. Richard (Lord) Layard, Alain de Botton (formerly of this parish), Avner Offer, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (with their recent The Spirit Level), and Oliver James have pioneered a line which has rocketed to political, academic and media prominence without first having acquired many adherents or even critics. Theirs is not an argument that has inspired street protests or direct action. It has no grassroots political drivers. So it has achieved an ideological ideal, a painless ascendancy. It is the matching book-end to “Thatcherism”. It appeals to everyone who hates “what we became in the ’80s”. 

James’s version has some attractive if banal features. He notes (quoting Avner Offer and every grandmother since the beginning of time) that one key to happiness is knowing the difference between “want” and “need”.  He is right that affluent moderns ought to try to be less self-obsessed.   

But James is on to more wrong stuff. If you care to poke about the data, his various cases come unstuck. The data suggest (contrary to his take on it) that rich societies deliver happiness quite well. In spite of rising expectations (fuelled by rising standards), large majorities in rich societies declare themselves well satisfied as they have done since anyone bothered to ask. There is good evidence that rich people in rich societies are even happier than their poorer fellow-citizens. 

The argument in this last sentence matters because James (educated at Eton and Cambridge) prefers to argue in his 2007 book Affluenza (Vermilion) that the selfishly driven rich are more miserable than the socially affable poor. However, in an argument that doesn’t trouble itself with coherence, he suggests that affluenza is “a contagious middle-class virus”, which most afflicts those in a broad swathe in what otherwise look like lucky societies.

Equally, he seems to have mangled the complicated evidence about hormones, stress and aggression. His 1997 book, Britain On the Couch (Century), developed an argument that envy had produced the kind of stress common in caged animals, which are made miserable by their inability to alter their circumstances. In this, he was developing thoughts pioneered by Martin Seligman. But James is in a muddle when he appears to dismiss or miss the hazardous joys of being highly charged.   

Insisting that his interest is “scholarly” not political, James says that the present economic and political system is designed to enrich the very few at the expense of everyone else and he has some ideas to correct that situation, but one suspects that not even his most ardent fans take them seriously. 

James is a more or less conventional, ambitious person of the Left, but his argument is as post-socialist as it is post-Thatcherite. He certainly doesn’t sound like a socialist as he argues for greater equality, a quest he anyway prefers to discuss as the promotion of greater unselfishness. This is perhaps because his is a cultural rather than a political case. He very much admires Denmark and frankly wishes we Brits were more like those southern Scandinavians. 

Certainly, their country is a wonderful place to visit. Still, new OECD data suggest their consumption of antidepressants is greater than ours. OECD also notes that while theirs is a less unequal society than ours (and the tax take is ten per cent higher), their poorest ten per cent and ours have pretty similar incomes. Oddly, James unblushingly dislikes Scandinavian childcare policies and general conformity, as though these weren’t quite important to the countries’ ethos.

Of course, the problem is that the British (and Americans and Australians) choose not to be Scandinavian. Unless we are looped in denial and trapped in false consciousness, we seem positively and knowingly to prefer our more dangerous cultures. This may well be incomprehensible to the British Council, which helped to fund the globetrotting that produced Affluenza. It was a typical if glorious case of overrating Oliver James as he seeks to demolish what the Council ought to promote: our deliberate and sometimes troubling uniqueness.