My friend John de Graaf wrote the book (and coined the word) Affluenza to describe a world where consumerism trumps governance, greed trumps community and money trumps all. In writing Affluenza, John’s mission was to save our nation from descending into a Hunger Games-like dystopia where the rich control everything and the poor must suffer. He never thought his work would be used to get a wealthy teenager off the hook for killing people.
Ethan Couch, Symbol of What Ails US?
The blast of news reports, blog posts and social media about young Ethan Couch paint a picture of what is wrong when Affluenza is the norm. Ethan was raised with the notion that money, rather than remorse and correcting a course of action, is the answer to mistakes or misdeeds.
Within his cocoon of wealth, a sense of empathy for those not as well off as he was not instilled but, instead, a sense of invincibility was. He was not held accountable for his actions. Instead, his parents swamped him with things money can buy. This poor little rich boy is now in the unenviable position of representing what is wrong with our country.
Ten years after the first release of the book, John and I started working together on a project to cure the ills of Afflenza and the widening rich-poor gap in this country. It is called The Happiness Initiative. It provides a way to get our country off the singular focus on wealth and consumerism and onto a broader focus on the wellbeing and happiness of all.
Teens Surveyed on Well Being
This summer, Teens in Public Service (TIPS), a Seattle-based nonprofit used the Happiness Initiative’s Gross National Happiness Index to understand what makes teenagers happy. TIPS works with teens by providing paid employment in public service. Teens get a chance to earn money while doing work that they love and helping others. TIPS couples the cultivation of a strong work ethic with that of compassion.
Thirty-one of the 50 TIPS youth took the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) during the course of their paid internships in 2013. They scored highest in material wellbeing, at 81 out of 100, and lowest in time balance, at 52 out of 100. Their other lowest scores were in community and governance, at 58 and 56 out of 100 respectively.
The GNH Index indicated that the teens were spending more time in activities that enhance their material wellbeing at the expense of time spent in community, governance and other areas of life. Community includes relationships with friends and family, volunteering and getting to know neighbors and others in their schools and work place so as to build trust.
They also scored low in governance, indicating they did not trust that their local or federal government had their interests at heart or feel that there was enough opportunity for involvement.
The Paradox of Plenty
The teens were reminded that ignoring time with friends and family or not being active in other areas of your life for a short time because of a pressing engagement is okay. However, long-term imbalance can have a deleterious effect on all the other areas of life and will eventually lead to unhappiness. In essence, balance is important.
They were also informed about the Easterlin Paradox, which tells us that happiness in terms of satisfaction with life and affect does not increase much once you pass an income of about $75,000 for a family of four. Admittedly, short-term affect (how you feel) does increase if you gain a lot of money, like if you win the lottery. Yet, depending on who you are, after between two weeks to one year, you go back to your old level of happiness.
Community, Friends, Family Offer the Most Gains In Satisfaction
We let the youth know that on the other hand, the most bang you can get for your buck after you have an income of about $75,000 for a family of four is in the domain of community. So spending time with friends and family, volunteering and getting to know neighbors and others in your community will make you happier. So will engaging in the governance of your school, neighborhood, city or country.
We left the project feeling hopeful about the youth of our nation. The teens were idealistic, hard working and responsible.
When faced with current events, memories of working with them and their program cheers the heart with the knowledge that while there is a serious problem with the rich-poor gap in this country, many of our nation's youth are gaining the education and experience to change that tomorrow.