Name: John de Graaf
Author: Affluenza
Interviewed by: Brisbane Ambassador, Lee Mathers

Affluenza (noun)(ˌæflʊˈɛnzə) “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more”.

It’s an invented word obviously, first appearing in 1954, but it was popularised by John de Graaf in his documentary in 1997 and then 2001 in a co-written book of the same name. Today the term has evolved into an entire body of academic research, asking the question why are we continually working ourselves harder and harder to make more and more money to buy and consume more “stuff”?

With more than 25 years of experience on this topic, John de Graaf has finally been scheduled for his first visit to Australia to take part in the Brisbane Writers Festival and I got to have a chat with him about the global economy, the upcoming presidential elections and the economics of happiness.

The first thing to note is that topics John speaks on are all inter-related.

“I got interested in issues of affluenza, that is, overconsumption issues, and that took me in to looking at what we sacrifice in our lives to pay for that overconsumption.

“In the first instance this sacrifice is time because particularly in the States, we’ve become very overworked.

“From that I got interested in the whole worldwide attempt to measure wellbeing or happiness, rather than simply GDP. But with all of these things I was always running up against that question: ‘What’s that going to do to the economy?’

“This lead me to say that we have to ask a different question: ‘what’s the purpose of the economy, anyway?”

These issues have garnered increasing attention over the last few years, with the massive consumption of the late 1990s through to the early 2000s when the good times appeared as if they would never end. But with the start of the Global Financial Crisis, de Graaf hopes that there has been a fundamental shift in the way people think and act.

“Right now the big issue in the States is how we get people to actually buy things. People are saving for the first time in ages, which is not unhealthy, but the problem is that the economy is structured in such a way that if they don’t shop and spend then there is the creation of vast unemployment and lack of investment.

“So we’re in a real bind. Now the issue is the structure of the economy and the need to redirect it to a new paradigm based on well-being and sustainability rather than growth.”

The economic-growth-mantra is one that we hear constantly from the lips of politicians, regardless of on which side of the political fence they may sit. This focus is even sharper in the United States, where the current Presidential campaigns – another topic on which de Graaf will be speaking at BWF – seem to speak of nothing else.

“Given the circumstances today, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be talking about the economy, but the problem is that there are no new ideas. We’re talking about the economy in the same way.”

It’s no secret that de Graaf is an Obama supporter, but he says the Romney campaign is proposing to fix the economy with “the sort thing that to some degree we’ve been doing since 1980. This has really caused many of the big problems that we have in the economy today.”

“What these folks are doing is saying that the way to solve these economic problems is to do more of the same, only faster, which is the working definition of insanity.”

Discussions about the economy and the upcoming US elections lead de Graaf back to a topic about which he is clearly passionate: how to improve the well-being and happiness of his fellow citizens. He believes that outside of the States, many countries are on the right track.

“There is a nuttiness in the United States. We don’t even really know what’s going on in Canada, much less the rest of the world.

“We tend to think of most other countries as poor and third world. We don’t understand that in most wealthy countries in the world, people are doing better in virtually every quality of life category.

“Here in Australia there is no question that you have your problems, but you’re not looking at armies of homeless people on the streets like we are in the US or that millions of people have no health coverage”.

While the health care debate rages in the US, it’s the slavish dedication or need to work that de Graaf would like to change. He cites a remarkable statistic that would cause riots in Australia.

“Thirty-nine per cent of the American workforce does not get paid vacation. Most people can’t believe it. They say that they know that American’s don’t get that much vacation, but they think that we get two weeks by law. But that’s not correct.”

De Graaf has helped to create an organisation in the US called “Take Back Your Time”, which attempts to challenge time poverty and overwork in the US and Canada.

“What we don’t understand is that while money has its purposes and you need a certain amount of it for economic security and to be able to do other kinds of things, money just isn’t the be all and end all.

“We seem to have forgotten that a worthwhile life contains all of these important non-material elements, which GDP does not effectively measure because you don’t spend money on them. GDP has its uses, but it needs to be combined with a much more complex sense of what’s valuable in life”.

What de Graaf is attempting to do with his discussions on over consumption, a relentless focus on the economy and what purpose it is really trying to service, and time poverty and overwork, is to shift the focus to a debate about the lives that we really want to be living, instead of those lives in which we sometimes seem to find ourselves trapped.

“Think about the fact that we really do need time. If we’re working ourselves to death, then we don’t have the time for family and friends and connections and our health and community building.

“As those things deteriorate, our quality of life goes down with it. Ironically, as those things deteriorate, as we have less real friendships and connections and so on, the marketers try to sell those things back to us in the form of products.

“As we lose our environment and the quality of the environment declines, we instead fly off to a pristine beach and spend money, but it doesn’t solve the real neglect for those aspects of life that require time in order to get benefit from them.”

The topics John De Graaf talks about are big topics; important topics. They are issues that go beyond simple thirty second sound bites we get every evening on the news. They require time and effort and a level of discourse that doesn’t descend into the vitriol to which we have become so accustomed.

De Graaf shows that we can have those conversations and we can challenge entrenched processes in order to help reshape and refocus our economy and way of life away from one of over consumption and a relentless focus on the collection of more “stuff”. Instead we should be focusing on the quality of the lives that we are living and the pursuit of happiness rather than the almighty dollar.

John de Graaf is appearing at several sessions throughout the Brisbane Writers Festival, including:

  • What’s the Economy for Anyway?
  • We Need to Talk About America
  • Beyond Greed
  • Our Future World

Visit the Brisbane Writers Festival website for further details and ticket information. The Fetch is attending sessions at BWF courtesy of the Festival organisers.