The Influence of Affluence

Does greater personal wealth increase our sense of well-being? If not, why not, and why does real contentment elude us?

Today we live in an increasingly prosperous world, much of which enjoys unprecedented levels of affluence. Contributing to this phenomenon are more benign, often democratic governments, free trade, scientific and technological progress, and the revolution in digital communications, all of which have fueled the development of global markets. A veritable cascade of material wealth is flooding much of the globe: Europe and North America are by some accounts about three times as rich as they were in 1950, and a number of other regions can demonstrate similar or better advances.

And so in today’s global society, progressively fewer areas remain untouched by the “flow of novel and compelling opportunities, services and goods,” which Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford University, suggests is the essence of affluence.

This quickening flow inevitably confronts each of us with ever more choice. But it leads to a fundamental question of lasting importance: Does greater affluence lead inexorably to greater well-being? Offer explores this question in his 2006 book The Challenge of Affluence. He concludes that richer is not (much) better.

Contrary to our expectations, a higher salary does not make us much happier. We need to look to our family relationships, our friends and our communities for our well-being.”

Julia Unwin, Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation,“What Are the 21st Century’s Social Evils?” (RSA Lecture, London, July 2007)

Julia Unwin agrees. She is director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which describes itself as “one of the largest social policy research and development charities in the United Kingdom.” In a July 2007 Royal Society of Arts lecture in London, Unwin remarked that “there is more money in the economy than ever before,” yet this “relative affluence has not brought ease and rest; instead it has brought new problems. . . . Contrary to our expectations, a higher salary does not make us much happier.”

Signs of the Affluent Times

Data on objective and subjective demographic indicators of well-being show that when a society first begins to develop, the well-being of its citizens increases as basic needs are met. But after such needs are satisfied, well-being levels off despite further increases in income.

In another lecture, this one at the London School of Economics in May 2007, Offer suggested that “the pace of innovation is the challenge of affluence”: today’s rapid pace of innovation includes developments in science and technology, a widening range of consumer goods and services, and the powerful effect of media, advertising and the Internet—all pressuring us to make choices. And when we are faced with so many choices in such quick succession, we’re often unable to cope. As a result, we make bad or harmful choices that actually reduce our well-being.

The very fact that some choices reduce personal well-being is what makes them bad, Offer says. He and Unwin both provide examples of the harmful choices that individuals in affluent societies tend to make.

First, levels of personal savings have declined precipitously in many developed countries. The restraint of earlier generations who were willing to save for the things they wanted has disappeared under a blizzard of easy credit. Why wait for the future if you can buy now? Readily available credit cards magically take the waiting out of wanting. The result is that mountains of personal debt have built up as people rush to satisfy their all-consuming urges.

And, of course, there are so many attractive things to spend money on. Affluent societies continually produce more goods to satisfy the demands of a growing market. Further, thanks to developing countries manufacturing goods more cheaply, the things we want invariably become available for less. It is therefore perhaps understandable that most people, especially the young, give in to the pressure to possess all the latest fashionable gadgets and consumer goods, whether or not they need them or can afford them.

The endless variety of merchandise that consumers have available to them comes with more than a monetary price tag, in that affluence has also had a profound effect on the environment. Unwin notes that “the extraordinarily high levels of packaging, the built-in disposability of consumer goods, and the cavalier use to which we put our precious resources are all perhaps products of an easy affluence that should have brought us only benefits.” She remarks, “The environmental degradation that threatens the world is a powerful manifestation of the way in which affluence—and excess consumption—has created its own social evils.”

And while fossil fuels have supplied most of the energy to power industry, transportation, and the comfortable lifestyles of today’s prosperity, many experts now tell us that all this is a fundamental cause of global warming, with potentially catastrophic consequences. We are told that we must drastically reduce our “carbon footprints” in an attempt to counter the effects of global warming and to reduce pollution. Targets that are being set to reduce carbon emissions will require individual sacrifice and change. Will people be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to help ensure a better global future for all?

What are the biggest barriers to us being the people we need to be to create the future we say we want?” 

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, “What Are the 21st Century’s Social Evils?” (RSA Lecture, London, July 2007)

Offer identifies another concerning trend: our more sedentary lifestyles, combined with the introduction of cheap and rich convenience foods, have fostered an epidemic of obesity. Studies show that people don’t want to be obese, yet they continue to eat more—and to eat more of what is unhealthful. Restaurants and supermarkets cater to rushed lifestyles and to people’s desire to have more than they need: fast-food portions have continued to increase in amount, and the abundance of choices has provided greater opportunity to indulge our unhealthy cravings.

Along similar lines, Unwin simply states that “we are not good at controlling our appetites.” By that she means much more than overeating, however: “The ever more widespread dependency on alcohol and drugs of all kinds, with the attendant crime and damage to family and neighborhood life, is a by-product of both our surplus wealth and our frequently fatal inability to manage the risks that are associated with our pleasures.”

She and Offer describe additional social ills that are increasingly prevalent today. Family breakdown, a widening gap between generations, poverty, road and landscape congestion, higher levels of stress, denial of health care, mental disorder, violence, economic fraud, insecurity—all are in part byproducts of an increasingly prosperous society. Social critics warn that whole communities are unraveling and that social capital, the glue that holds societies together, is dissolving.

Unwin goes on to make a sobering observation: “Our affluence may be pointing us in the direction of one of the greatest evils of all: the view that some human beings are of less value than others; that in a market economy the needs of those for whom the market has no use are somehow secondary to those who are actors in that economy.”

Surely that is a troubling assessment. Unwin asks, “How do we manage to learn to live alongside each other? To share the benefits from our newfound affluence? To create a society in which all are valued and none are expendable? The prize for learning to do this is immense. The penalty we will all pay if we fail is unimaginable.”

The Paradox . . .

All of this calls to mind the biblical description of a time when the defining characteristic of society will be selfishness, materialism, and a pleasure-driven, godless existence in which sound character will all but have evaporated (2 Timothy 3:1–5). It would appear that affluence is in part a driving force of such “perilous times”—times not unlike those in which we now live.

Since the 1960s, according to Offer, the virtues of thrift, abstinence, chastity and religion have been overtaken by self-absorption, living for now, and hedonism. As the world recovered from the ravages and privation of World War II, attitudes began to change. He notes what he calls “the great transition,” a progressive ideological and institutional upheaval that began to take place toward the end of the 1960s and into the ’70s, when “attitudes began a slow shift away from the common welfare and public service as sources of well-being, and towards private benefits.” In other words, we have become progressively more selfish and self-centered.

Offer believes this transition has been, at least in part, driven by the dynamic of affluence. His fundamental thesis is that “affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being.” And with impatience and other shortcomings of character, fueled by choices arising from greater affluence, have come the social and personal disorders described above, which are obviously infecting our prosperous nations.

These selfish and shortsighted tendencies aren’t new, however. Offer quotes 18th-century philosopher David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature: “There is no quality in human nature, which causes more fatal errors in our conduct, than that which leads us to prefer whatever is present to the distant and remote.” The average person often prefers a smaller reward sooner than a larger reward later. While we may desire a long-term goal of greater value, we will often choose to forgo that goal for an object of lesser value now. This represents a commitment problem, a preference for instant gratification over delayed satisfaction.

In explaining why this has recently become such a significant problem, Offer remarks that innovation is undermining commitment. The novelty of the latest thing we must have induces a short-term bias for the now. The resulting overconsumption leads to saturation, which actually reduces our ability to enjoy the very things we desire. That is to say, the more we have of something, the less we enjoy it.

The professor concludes that “abundance and novelty cause harm as well [as good]. They displace and devalue the stock of pre-existing possessions, virtues, relations, and values. Enticing rewards have mutated into unwelcome consequences.” Paradoxically, “the flow of new rewards can undermine the capacity to enjoy them.” Put another way, a rise in income (after basic needs are met) does not appear to improve well-being.

Offer suggests that the solution isn’t to maximize consumption, as we’re daily encouraged to do, but to slow down and pace our consumption. His prescription for change is admirable: greater balance is the key—between consumption and investment; between our desires for the now and the benefits of the future; between the needs of the self and the needs of others. Well-being consists of a dynamic balance between these often contrasting and conflicting imperatives. Offer calls for moderation, a return to greater civility and to less frenzied self-seeking. He wants to see a genuine culture of service to others, the restoration of a sense of humility and proportion “to delegitimize the destructive (and ultimately self-defeating) pursuit of self-interest, power, dominance, status.”

He is alluding to a change of lifestyle based on self-control and moderation. But he doesn’t believe that we humans can exercise the degree of restraint necessary to make such a change, as personal strategies of self-discipline and restraining rules have statistically proven ineffective. He instead advocates social commitment devices as a solution: taxation to impose personal sacrifice; forced savings schemes like Social Security and National Insurance; goods in kind, such as a housing benefit, food stamps and free education. Offer believes that government and educational institutions need to help people make effective choices by creating more laws and educational norms.

Individual choice is restricted by statute and regulation. . . . In the absence of all these bonds, the task of self-control would be even more difficult than it is.”

Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence

Such externally applied measures certainly have their place and can stimulate more benign choices that result in greater control over our lives. But they should not be confused with self-control. Offer is right to note that we humans struggle (and often fail) to control many of our natural tendencies and impulses. So what is the solution? Is there a solution?

. . . And the Answer

Our readers will know that Vision’s approach is to look to the Bible for answers. There we find principles that shed light on issues such as these. And what the Bible says is that happiness and well-being are not rooted in material consumption. At their core these characteristics are spiritual in nature. Belief in God and in His way of life is central to our lasting well-being. Money might well be described as “the lubricant of life”: it enables us to purchase life’s necessities and its pleasures and to smooth the progression of our lives. But well-being is ultimately a state of mind, whether we have little or much wealth.

The Bible also warns of the perils of unbridled desire. Lasting happiness, fulfillment and well-being are not, after all, based on the abundance of material possessions (Luke 12:15). The Scriptures go on to caution against the hedonistic approach to life that is increasingly common today. Instead, we are encouraged to live a life that is more spiritually focused on the things of God (verses 16–21). Could this provide the well-spring of individual and collective well-being?

The greatest challenge of affluence is to remember that it is God, rather than ourselves, who gives us the power to gain wealth (Deuteronomy 8:10–18). If we are not careful, affluence can easily become the slippery slope that leads to rejection of God. Truly, love of money and all it can buy is “a root of all kinds of evil” and can lead to “greediness” and “many sorrows.” On the other hand, capturing the very different frame of mind of “godliness with contentment” can, perhaps paradoxically, lead to “great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6–10).

Along with such a change in lifestyle, priorities, and worldview can come the very characteristics that are otherwise so elusive. Self-control and self-restraint can become core values. These in turn drive a greater respect for our environment. We will then consume without overconsuming and will live within our means. We will value relationships more than material things or self-centered desires. In addition, we will have due regard for future needs and exercise a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

The issues facing modern civilization are becoming increasingly severe. The future promises a rough ride indeed unless we can rise to the challenge of affluence and make the profound spiritual changes that are desperately needed.