Since I had co-produced the film that popularized the term 'affluenza' and co-written a best-selling book bythe same name, they consider me something of an expert on the subject. But my film and book were more about a social disease than a psychological one. In the book, I argued that affluenza–a virus of materialism and over-consumption– had huge costs for Americans, one of the most serious of which was that in our pursuit of ever more stuff, we were working ourselves to the bone. Here is chapter three from my book, making the case for time instead of stuff. You can find the book at: http://www.amazon.com/Affluenza-Overconsumption-Killing-Usand-Fight/dp/1609949277
CHAPTER 3: STRESSED TO KILL
We are a nation that shouts at a microwave oven to hurry up.
–Joan Ryan, The San Francisco Chronicle
"Affluenza is a major disease, there's no question about it,"says Dr. Richard Swenson of Menomonie, Wisconsin, who practiced medicine for many years before changing his focus to writing and lecturing. He found that too many of his patients were stretched to their limits and beyond with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation, and reflection. They showed symptoms of acute stress.
Swenson observed that many of his patients suffered from what he now calls "possession overload," the problem of dealing with too much stuff. "Possession overload is the kind of problem where you have so many things, you find your life is being taken up by maintaining and caring for things instead of people," Swenson says. "Everything I own owns me. People feel sad and what do they do. They go to the mall and they shop and it makes them feel better, but only for a short time. There's an addictive quality in consumerism. But it simply doesn't work. They've gotten all these things and they still find this emptiness, this hollowness. All they have is stress and exhaustion and burnout, and their relationships are vaporizing. They're surrounded by all kinds of fun toys but the meaning is gone." "Tragedy," observes Swenson, "is wanting something badly, getting it, and finding it empty. And I think that's what's happened."
Travel writer Rick Steves agrees. He spends a hundred days or so in Europe each year and notices a far more relaxed, less consumptive attitude toward life in contrast to the United States. "To me, it seems Americans have lost track of what life is about because we're pressured to constantly be growing, always more," says Steves. "It's like the hamster was going as fast as he could five years ago and every year he's gotta go faster. We need to get smart about what really matters–the well-being of our seniors, the health of our environment, the shaping of our children, the freedom to enjoy our lives without always having to play for our financial well-being and constantly growing.
There's been an almost imperceptible change in American greetings over the past two decades. Remember how when you used to say "how are you?" to the friends you ran into at work or on the street, they'd reply, "fine, and you?" Now, when we ask that question, the answer is often "busy, and you?" (when they have time to say, "and you?") "Me too," we admit. We used to talk of having "time to smell the flowers." Now we barely find time to smell the coffee. "The pace of life has accelerated to the point where everyone is breathless," says Richard Swenson. "You look at all the countries that have the most prosperity and they're the same countries that have the most stress."
Tried to make a dinner date with a friend recently? Chances are you have to look a month ahead in your appointment calendars. Even children now carry them. Ask your co-workers what they'd like more of in their lives and odds are they'll say "time." "This is an issue that cuts across race lines, class lines, and gender lines," says African-American novelist Barbara Neely. "Nobody has any time out there." We're all like the bespectacled bunny in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, who keeps looking at his watch and muttering, "No time to say hello, goodbye, I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!"
By the early 1990s, trend-spotters were warning that a specter was haunting America: time famine. Advertisers noted that "time will be the luxury of the 1990s." A series of clever TV spots for US West showed time-pressed citizens trying to "buy time" at a bank called 'Time R Us' or in bargain basements. One store offered customers "the greatest sale of all TIME." A weary woman asked where she could buy "quality time." "Now you CAN buy time," the ads promised. "Extra working time with mobile phone service from US West."
More working time. Hmmm.
We thought the opposite was supposed to be true: that advances in technology, automation, cybernation, were supposed to give us more leisure time and less working time. We remember how all those futurists were predicting that by the end of the 20th Century we'd have more leisure time than we'd know what to do with? In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee heard testimony that estimated a workweek of from fourteen to twenty-two hours by the year 2000.
We got the technology, but we didn't get the time. We have computers, fax machines, cell phones, e-mail, robots, express mail, freeways, jetliners, microwaves, fast food, one-hour photos, digital cameras, pop tarts, frozen waffles, instant this and instant that. But we have less free time than we did thirty years ago. And about those mobile phones: They do give you "extra working time" while driving, but make you as likely to cause an accident as someone who's legally drunk. Progress? And then there are those leaf blowers . . .
Patience may be the ultimate victim of our hurried lives. David Schenk, author of The End of Patience, says that such things as the speed of the Internet, email or on-line shopping mean that "We're packing more into our lives and losing patience in the process. We've managed to compress time to such an extent that we're now painfully aware of every second that we wait for anything." There are now Internet news monitors in the elevators of a large Northeast hotel chain, and the ability to pedal and surf the Net at the same time at many fitness centers. Gas stations are considering putting in TV monitors on the islands to keep you amused while pumping.
THE HARRIED LEISURE CLASS
We should have paid attention to Staffan Linder. In 1970, the Swedish economist warned that all those predictions about more free time were a myth, that we'd soon be a "harried leisure class" starved for time. "Economic growth," wrote Linder, "entails a general increase in the scarcity of time." He continued, "As the volume of consumption goods increases, requirements for the care and maintenance of these goods also tends to increase, we get bigger houses to clean, a car to wash, a boat to put up for the winter, a television set to repair, and have to make more decisions on spending."
It's as simple as this: increased susceptibility to affluenza means increasing headaches from time pressure.
Shopping itself, Linder pointed out "is a very time-consuming activity." Indeed, on average, Americans now spend nearly three times as much time shopping as they do playing, talking or reading with their kids. Even our celebrated freedom of choice only adds to the problem.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice, warns that so many choices actually increase our anxiety, and are likely to leave us less happy. He points us that many of us are regularly troubled by the sense that we may have made the wrong choice, that there was a better product or a lower price out there.
So many choices. So little time. Linder said this would happen, and he warned that when choices become overwhelming, "the emphasis in advertising will be placed on ersatz information," because "brand loyalty must be built up among people who have no possibility of deciding how to act on objective grounds." Ergo, if you're a marketer, hire a battery of psychologists to study which box colors are most associated by shoppers with pleasurable sex. Or something like that.
Linder argued that past a certain point, time pressure would increase with growing productivity. But he wasn't sure whether working hours would rise or fall. He certainly doubted they'd fall as much as the automation cheerleaders predicted. He was right. ln fact, there seems to be some pretty strong evidence that Americans are actually working more now than they did a generation ago.
Using labor department statistics, Harvard economist Juliet Schor argues that full-time American workers toiling 160 hours–one full month–more, on average, in 1991, than they did in 1969. "It's not only the people in the higher income groups–who, by the way, have been working much longer hours," says Schor. "It's also the middle classes, the lower classes, and the poor. Everybody is working longer hours." Indeed, according to the International Labor Organization, in October of 1999 the United States passed Japan as the modern industrial country with the longest working hours. Forty-two percent of American workers say they feel "used up" by the end of the workday. Sixty-nine percent say they'd like to slow down and live a more relaxed life.
According to a 2013 Pew survey, more than half of all American mothers and fathers say they find it difficult to manage family and work responsibilities and more than a third say they "always feel rushed." There are ironies to all of this. The same poll found that while mothers who work the fewest hours are happiest, more mothers than ever before say they'd rather work full time.
Some of this irony results from the excessive material expectations of our affluenza-inflicted society, but much more seems to be the result of the increasing gap between rich and poor in America. For the median worker, jobs today pay less than they once did. Keeping up with the Joneses is far harder when moms work only part-time. Where it used to take one full-time wage earner to support a four-member family in the 1960s at the median standard of living, it now takes two wage-earners to support three people. We have managed to keep pace with new consumer expectations, but only by working longer and harder and in many cases, going deep into debt, requiring even more work and stress to get back above water.
NO TIME TO CARE
Moreover, Juliet Schor says, "The pace of work has increased quite dramatically. We are working much faster today than we were in the past. And that contributes to our sense of being overworked and frenzied and harried and stressed out and burned out by our jobs." In the digital world, everybody wants that report yesterday. Patience is now so "yesterday." It wears thin rapidly when we get used to a new generation of computers. Twenty years ago, Karen Nussbaum, former director of the Women's Bureau at the Department of Labor, pointed out that, "Twenty-six million Americans are monitored by the machines they work on, and that number is growing. I had one woman tell me her computer would flash off and on: YOU'RE NOT WORKING AS FAST AS THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU!" Doesn't just thinking about that make your blood pressure rise?
Americans are feeling this big time. A 2013 Harris Interactive Poll found that 83 percent of American workers say they are stressed out on the job. Seventy-five percent of workers report physical symptoms of stress, and workplace stress costs our economy more than $300 billion a year.
Meanwhile, we have less time to recuperate from the work frenzy. A survey by Expedia.com found that Americans gave back an average of three vacation days to their employees in 2003, a gift to corporations of $20 billion. By 2011, the gift had risen to four days per worker and $67 billion. Only 38 percent of American workers use all their vacation days, and 72 percent say they regularly check in with the office and do work while on holiday. As their reason for doing so, most said they didn't want to be seen as slackers when the next round of layoffs came. Others said they simply couldn't take time off and keep up with the demands of their jobs.
NO VACATION NATION
Of course, that's when they get vacations at all. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research called "No Vacation Nation" makes it clear that at least a quarter of American workers receive no paid vacation time at all. A 2008 poll by the Opinion Research Corporation found that the median vacation time taken by Americans was a little over a week, while a study Jody Heymann and Alison Earle of Canada's McGill University found that the U.S. was one of only five nations in the world with no legal guarantee of paid vacation time. The others? Suriname, Guyana, Nepal, and that paragon of human rights, Burma or Myanmar. That's it.
Dr. Sarah Speck, who runs the Cardio-Vascular Wellness Program at Seattle's Swedish Hospital, reminds us that vacations are an essential break from stress, which she calls "the new tobacco." One of her power points shows how our cardiovascular system looks under stress and after a life of smoking; you can't tell the difference.
"Stress is ubiquitous." says Speck. "It can do great harm to us. The way we work is all out. We basically work too much and we have too many demands on our time. Stress causes us to constrict our blood vessels just like nicotine and tobacco does. It is as important in developing heart disease as having uncontrolled blood pressure or being medically obese; that's the biochemical power of being over worked and overburdened and feeling stressed."
Speck points out that "men who don't take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have a heart attack than men who do take vacations," and for women the number is higher at 50 percent. A study done by Wisconsin's Marshfield Clinic also found that women who don't take regular vacations are far more likely to suffer from depression–up to eight times as likely in fact.
All of this takes a physical toll that is far higher than that generated by stress in other rich countries less afflicted by affluenza. "We don't spend enough time on our health portfolios. We spend too much time on our financial portfolios," says Sarah Speck. "We've got to have our replenishing time. So what I'm now seeing is instead of people having heart attacks in their 60s and 70s, like when I first became a cardiologist, I'm now seeing it in their 40s and 50s."
A cheerful woman with a wry sense of humor, Dr. Speck has some advice for patients: slow down and stop chasing the chimera of more stuff. "I have patients that come in and tell me they can't get control of their stress, that they're not sleeping, that they don't know what to do, and I tell them, "Take two weeks and call me in the morning."
But many Americans can't do that; they don't even get two weeks. So in 2009, Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida introduced a bill in Congress that would have guaranteed modest vacations–one to two weeks–for American workers. It would have been seen as laughably weak in most countries, but here in America where stuff is prized and time is not, it was viewed almost as a threat to western civilization itself, at least our version of it. One of us, John, joined Congressman Grayson in a press conference supporting the bill. He was accused on Fox News of wanting to turn America into a land of slackers and (OMG!), a "21st Century France!"
Perhaps the bill would have implicitly forced Americans to appreciate good food and wine. It never got out of committee. Grayson reintroduced the bill in 2013 but its prospects now seem even bleaker since the Republicans, who won control of the House of Representatives in 2010, oppose any mandates for business. They forget that it was a conservative Republican president, William Howard Taft, who, a hundred years earlier, suggested that American workers should get two or three months off each year to improve their health, productivity and family bonds. (8) Our minds filled with the fog of affluenza, we are actually going backwards.
WHAT DO WE DO WITH PROGRESS?
Juliet Schor reminds us that the United States has seen more than a doubling of productivity since World War II. "So the issue is: what do we do with that progress? We could cut back on working hours. We could produce the old amount in half as much time and take half the time off. Or we could work just as much as produce twice as much." And, says Schor, "we've put all our economic progress into producing more things. Our consumption has doubled and working hours have not fallen at all. In fact, working hours have risen."
Europeans made a different decision. In 1970, worker productivity per hour in the countries that comprise the European Union was 65% that of Americans. Their GDP per capita was about 70% of ours because they worked longer than we did back then. By 2005, EU productivity stood at 91% of ours, and several European economies were actually more productive per worker hour than we are. But real per capita GDP in those countries is still only about 72% that of the U.S. They have a lot less stuff than we do. So what happened? It's simple: the Europeans traded a good part of their productivity gains for time instead of money. So instead of working more than we do, they now work much less–nearly nine weeks less per year.
As a result, they live longer and are healthier, despite spending far, far less per capita on health care. In fact, the U.S is stressed to kill. We rank dead last (or "dead first" as physician Stephen Bezruchka puts it) in health among rich nations, with the shortest life expectancy, and we are now expected to spend 19% of our total GDP on health care by the year 2014. (9) Can you say "Mister Yuck?"
Affluenza is certainly not the only cause of time stress in America, but it is a major cause. Swelling expectations lead to a constant effort to keep up with the latest products and compete in the consumption arena. That in turn, forces us to work more, so can afford the stuff. With so many things to buy, and the need to work harder to obtain them, our lives grow more harried and more pressured. As one pundit put it, "if you win the rat race, you're still a rat," and you may be a dead one.
In recent years, many scientists have come to believe that viruses and other infections make us more susceptible to heart attacks. Their conclusions have come from studying influenza viruses. But they should look more closely at affluenza as well.
John de Graaf is the president of Take Back Your Time