Affluence Disorders; What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker

New words and phrases enter our lexicon regularly, often in response to new and highly specific inventions and behaviors, such as ‘social media’ or ‘sexting.’ The big picture still tends to be summarized by the older concepts that capture unchanging basic human impulses, words and phrases like ‘animal spirits’ or ‘ennui.’

The new phrase that has come to my attention, one that captures an emergent trend in human behavior, is ‘affluence disorders.’ Often called ‘diseases of affluence,’ or ‘affluenza,’ these are afflictions that come as the result what was previously thought to be the universal good of greater wealth and material well-being.

The list of ailments that fall under this heading is a long one. There are the obvious, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. These ailments are the result of too many cheap calories. Then there are the less obvious conditions, which include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, colorectal cancer, and gout.

The underlying cause of these conditions, while each has its own trajectory, is too much food and not enough movement. Or, to put it differently, the underlying cause is doing everything that we’ve been conditioned to do since birth and that we’ve defined as the core ingredients of a successful life; relax and enjoy! Bon Appétit! Surround yourself in luxury! Never be uncomfortable again.

What erodes the body then erodes the personality; affluenza drives depression, social isolation, and I suspect a raft of anti-social behaviors that ends in suicide.

In short, everything that saves us from what killed us previously, starvation, temperature extremes, infectious diseases, tribal wars, now kills us with its cures. Much of modern medicine has ceased to be about treating ancient ailments and become the treatment of affluence side effects.

Evolutionary biologist are often connecting various kinds of human behavior to long term evolutionary needs, but I’ve yet to hear a biologist explain why the human body doesn’t have an off switch when it comes to comfort. We will eat and luxuriate ourselves to death, and nature has no instinctual brake or cure. It’s as if evolution and natural selection could not anticipate the levels of abundance the human mind could devise and deliver. We have built-in evolutionary defense responses, but still, nature did not anticipate the corrosive effects of central heating and air, Cheetos, and binge-watching.

Of course, the push back began some time ago. There have always been professional athletes, mostly men, who worked and suffered and chose their food based on achieving a physical standard that was strictly for show. The modern fitness industry is the democratization of sports training, but it is very young. Shoes designed just for running didn’t reach mass consumption until well after WW2. Just 50 years ago, there were few gyms in the United States; now they are ubiquitous and incredibly inexpensive to join. Converting leisure time in to leisure activity is a relatively new idea.

I’ve noticed other strands of thought that are driving new adaptive behaviors meant to curb the negative effects of abundance.

For example, paleo-eating is overtly based on eating as our ancestors did. It calls for lots of meat, with all the fat, and plants in as raw a state as is safe. It rejects the idea of “convenience” in the diet.

There is a movement towards “tiny houses” which would imply one would not be holed up inside them all day. 150 square feet is for sleeping and staying out of the rain, and not much else.

There are other trends that, I suspect, are a kind of push-back. The trend towards more primitive body adornment, like tattoos and piercing, rejects the complex norms of appearance driven by advertising.

Bringing dogs closer to the core family unit is a rejection of the affluent idea of “pets.” A pet is a sort of personal zoo animal. Dogs were a part of the tribal unit in the past, and they are taking up that role again. The dog fanatics I know state openly that they believe animals are our moral superiors with clearer, simpler motives. Dogs are unaware of affluence and social grading.

To shed the corrosive effects of affluence disorders, we’re going to have to rethink office work. We’re going to have to cease thinking about eating as a primary recreational event. We’re going to have to place ourselves in near constant motion. We’re going to have to view experiencing hot and cold as a normal part of the day. Imagine how much of our economy is based on maintaining the way of life that is killing us and what will happen if even a small percentage turn their backs to it.

Perhaps natural selection is at work and nature’s time line is a long one; those that can’t shed the deleterious effects of affluence will fade and be replaced by their hardier competitors who seek discomfort intentionally.