Earlier this week I caught an interview with the clinical psychologist and author Oliver James on BBC Radio 4.  Oliver James for those who have never heard of him (and I was one of you until this week) has written a number of books that focus on an affliction that he calls “affluenza” which, he claims is rife in the UK.  Now, I have never read any of his books and I haven’t studied his “teachings” but he made a few comments during the interview that struck a chord with me, especially in light of the current economic and environmental climate.

His basic premise is that people in the UK are especially unhappy and stressed because their values are shot. He claims that our lives revolve around the mission for affluence and ownership.  According to James we have entirely lost our sense of values, we confuse want with need, we see ourselves in terms of the stuff we own and indiscriminate ownership of anything and everything is our primary goal.  The more we own the more we need to acquire.  The process is perpetual and ultimately frustrating, to the point that we are unhealthy both pysiologically and psychologically.  He’s got us sussed then!

In the interview, he pointed out that people in other European countries are more content because they have more of a “make-do-and-mend” approach to life and he’s right.  My experience of Central European countries is that this is very much the case.  People there don’t throw things out when they break down, they fix them and if they can’t be fixed they are stripped of components that might serve to fix something else at some later date.  Prague’s local council periodically park a skip in the street where my part-time home is, for people to deposit larger throw-out items.  Things like broken TV’s and electrical equipment, furniture and other stuff that won’t fit in a bustbin.  (Councils in the UK should try this insead of making us trek to the not-so-local tip whenever we need to dispose of something or charging some exorbitant fee, on top of our local taxes, for collecting them).  The notable thing about this is that anybody (notably ex-pats) who throws anything into these skips is treated with rasied eyebrows and tut-tutting from their neighbours for being so frivolous and wasteful and you’ll often find as many people taking stuff out of the skips as you will folks depositing items there.  Now that’s re-cycling!

Depending on where you look in the Czech Republic you will find people who make-do-and-mend sometimes because they can’t afford to buy new things, but mostly, just because they just don’t see a reason to buy new stuff when old stuff continues to work.  The aesthetic is irrelevent.

The result of this disregard for how things look is a community where long “heavy metal” hairstyles and Iron Miaden T-shirts are still de-rigeur, homes are furnished with a mish-mash of hand-me-down furniture and where, until very recently, many cars were of questionable roadworthiness.  To this day its easy to spot the country people who come to Prague to visit their city-dewlling relatives by their dress and carrier-bag luggage.  As an English friend of mine commented – “Czechs just have no style”.  He was right, and, mostly, they don’t care, but does it matter?  The answer has to be “no”.

Oliver James would, I guess, argue that this is how things should be and I’m sure that Maslow would agree with him on the basis that his “self-actualisation” (the highest point in his hierarchy of personal evolution) leaves brands and acquisition behind.  Remove the need to justify your existance by ownership of stuff and life is much simpler.  We would all be happier and more fulfilled.  You might even find time to do something truly worthwhile.  Its not easy to get a Czech to work overtime at weekends even if you pay them double time.  They just don’t see why they should give up their free time to get more money that they don’t need.  

A friend of mine is convinced that within twenty years we’ll all be getting around on horses and growing our lunch in our own back yards and with the world economy patched up, but clearly in a long term decline, oil resources drying up with no viable alternative on the horizon and the US and Australia set to run out of water any day now, its a scene that’s easy to visualise.

The irony is that while Central Europeans may have a healthier perspective than we do right now, that’s all set to change,  There’s a growing clammour among the young in these countries to be like their counterparts in the West.  In fact their acquisitiveness is frighteneing at times.  They are desperate to have everything that we have, even though they earn less and branded products are largely significantly more expensive than in the UK.  It makes you wonder how they’ll deal with the resultant stress, given that they arean’t really aclimatised to the condition.

If my friend with the horsey theory is right, our mobility in future will be limited by our capacity to walk and we will revert to a world of tribes.  Communities, each with its own personality, values, style, dependent for success on membership – brands in fact.  I have to say that I’m somewhat relieved to know that, worst-case scenario, I’m still in a growth industry!

Michael Weaver
October 20, 2008

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