Dan’s Literary Prize Spotlight: An Outbreak of Affluenza

Affluenza is contagious
Affluenza is contagious, Photo: Tijana87/iStock/Thinkstock

Now that the annual summer pilgrimage to the Hamptons has begun, let me warn you: there’s been an outbreak of affluenza. Long ago, I learned how toxic affluenza can be. So if you are lucky enough to have a home near the beach or be invited as a houseguest, I would like to suggest ways of protecting yourself. But first, let me tell you how I discovered this dreaded disease.

Like every good houseguest in the Hamptons, I always arrive with a basket full of wine and tempting comestibles. I help keep the kitchen clean and the conversation going. And I lend an empathetic ear when my hosts begin the inevitable list of Hamptons complaints: how impossible it is to make left turns or the right restaurant reservations.

But over the years, I’ve noticed the list of standard complaints has grown to include how newcomers bray instead of talk, cut the line at farm stands, and act as if stop signs and right-of-way rules do not apply to them. “People in Porsches, BMWs and Range Rovers are the worst,” one friend recently opined. “Why are they like that?”

I knew it was a rhetorical question, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to reply, “Clearly, there’s been an outbreak of affluenza!” I happen to be an expert on the subject, not just because I’m a psychologist, but because I grew up among the afflicted.

Affluenza, caused when having too much money becomes toxic, was first identified by Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter of a chairman of General Motors. She was pushing her daughter on a swing one day when the child asked, “Mommy, why do you always have a drink in your hand?” Staring at her mid-afternoon gin and tonic, O’Neill began to wonder why she, like the rest of the rich people she knew, wasn’t happy. Since her research, others have used the term to describe people with more money than morals, more entitlement than empathy, more greed than good will.

Affluenza makes people feel superior. This “superiority” not only breeds contempt, but also alienation and loneliness as they begin to feel that everyone only likes them for their money. And that’s often true, since there isn’t much else to like about a person with affluenza.

So, affluenza victims begin to think that maybe a bigger house, a better car or a different spouse will make them feel better. But the joy of acquisition is temporary. Maybe drugs or alcohol will make them happier? That doesn’t work either.

This vicious cycle is literally fatal for many people and their families. But there is a cure. I’ll tell you about that after some personal stories about how affluenza affected my family.

My maternal grandfather inherited the family food business, while his older brother inherited the bank. Boy, did that make me cranky when I saw my cousins collecting millions when the bank was sold.

That side of the family was charming and good looking, but never the model of mental health. For example, the patriarch and bank president, Boo-Boo, couldn’t seem to decide between a Southern lady and a bimbo. So he married each of them sequentially—twice. Despite this, the younger generations seemed to be holding it together until the bank was sold, and they all suddenly developed affluenza. Much of the money has gone up their noses, down the hatch and into rehab.

My paternal grandfather also inherited a bank. This one was in a small Southern town, probably the only place in the world where, for several generations, if you were a Hornor, you were top dog.

Like many people with too much money and too little altruism, my grandfather self-destructed. He gambled, drank too much and had affairs. He was well on the way to destroying his family when his mismanagement destroyed his bank. Affluenza brought him down, but it didn’t knock him out. I am proud of the fact that he took responsibility instead of claiming it wasn’t his fault. Even more important, instead of depressing himself with what I have come to call, “The Bitch in Your Head,” he learned from his mistakes instead of wallowing in “Shame on you!” or “You’ve ruined your life forever!” In disgrace and relative poverty, he moved his family to Washington, D.C. where he found a job with the Federal Trade Commission and began leading an upright life, working hard for the first time in his life. He acknowledged his failings in a way that allowed him to learn from them and live in the opposite manner.

Hard as it was for my grandfather to reconstruct his life, I think my grandmother’s job was even more difficult. She was flooded with anger and resentment: Her husband’s stupid self-indulgence had harmed many people and left her friendless in a new city where she was a nobody, forever removed from the town and lifestyle she loved.

But by the time I came along, they had transformed themselves into a relatively happy old couple. He had been a lousy father, but took advantage of second chances to become a jolly grandpa who took me to the movies each Saturday and bought me popcorn. My grandmother taught me to cook the wonderful French-influenced Southern food she served to the friends she made through church and civic organizations. I think it made her proud, knowing for sure that this new crowd liked her for herself, not her money.

So, is losing your money the cure for affluenza? Of course not. And I cited examples of affluenza from other times and places to show that the problem is not unique to the Hamptons. But places like Eastern Long Island, Greenwich, CT and Martha’s Vineyard seem to be suffering from a virulent outbreak of the problem. It seems to be a growing phenomenon. And it’s catching.

While many of the afflicted cannot be brought back to health, there are ways you can inoculate yourself and your family against the disorder. The first step is to recognize it. When starting to lose your cool while waiting for a table at Nick & Toni’s or your Dover sole at Citarella, remind yourself that 98% of the world would be thrilled to have your problem. Don’t believe this? Go with a volunteer group that builds houses for underprivileged families in Nicaragua or New Orleans. Gratitude goes a long way to blocking affluenza.

The second step is to understand that if you are unhappy, a bigger house on Gin Lane or Georgica Pond is not going to help. The thrill will be short-lived when you realize that you have brought yourself and your problems with you. Psychotherapy will be far more effective than Feng Shui.

The third step is to remind yourself and your children of what Bill Gates’s mother told him: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, and others like Warren Buffet, seem to derive as much pleasure from giving away their fortune as from amassing it. No wonder. There is a huge therapeutic benefit from genuine altruism. But buying tickets to galas that benefit the Southampton library (or even the Fresh Air Fund) because you hope that Bill Cunningham will notice you won’t help. And listening to the “Bitch” voice in your head that says if the right people don’t chat with you, the whole experience is a waste—well, that’s a sure sign of affluenza infection, not altruism.

Finally, even if you don’t have affluenza, your kids may catch it. Jessie O’Neill (remember the rich woman who invented the term?) found that raising children with love as well as limits and discipline is part of the inoculation process. And rich kids, like all children, need to be helped to get self-esteem and admiration by using their talents and good character traits, not by having expensive clothes and cars.

But let’s face it, despite the complaints—and even the droning commuter helicopters—the Hamptons is still a version of paradise. So it might be fun to start a movement to counter affluenza and bring back the old civility. Allow someone to make a right turn (or even a left) when the Montauk Highway is jammed. Let someone who is only buying two tomatoes go ahead of you in the farm-store line. And enjoy the pleasure of a genuine laugh even if they look at you with more confusion than gratitude.

Jacqueline Horner Plumez, Ph.D
Jacqueline Horner Plumez, Ph.D

Jacqueline Hornor Plumez, Ph.D. is a practicing psychologist and career coach whose new book is The Bitch in Your Head: How to Finally Squash Your Inner Critic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Dr. Plumez has been named a Distinguished Psychologist by and received the Distinguished Service Award from the Westchester County Psychological Association. In May, she was given the Service to Humanity Award by Bucknell University.

“An Outbreak of Affluenza” is one of the many nonfiction essays entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition. Our editors liked this entry and present it here, hoping you’ll like it. For more essays or to submit your own, visit LiteraryPrize.DansPapers.com.

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