Who among us hasn't purchased something we neither need nor particularly want because in the moment it seems like something we must have?
For some it's clothes or shoes. For me it's the pile of electronics sitting unused in my basement and the unceasing desire to buy a new phone even though I'm happy with the one I have. In some cases it's overspending on big purchases -- buying a house that is bigger than you need or taking a trip you can't really afford.
It's not just you. It's a pattern of overconsumption known as "affluenza," and it's a growing problem.
What is Affluenza?
"It's the virus of overconsumption," said John de Graaf, co-author of Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us -- and How to Fight Back in an email interview with the Fool. "It leads to waste, anxiety, social disconnection, overwork and such symptoms as 'swollen expectations,' 'shopping fever,' 'industrial diarrhea,' 'community chills,' and "resource exhaustion.' It carriers include advertising, and unrealistic media portrayals of the average American. Children are particularly susceptible to this virus."
It is, of course, not a real virus, but the impact can be real. Affluenza can even lead to poor investing decisions, according to de Graaf.
"It certainly has in many cases," he said. "It leads to a 'get rich quick' mentality that often leads to poorly thought-out speculation. It sharply depletes savings rates. It led many people to over-invest in big homes and second mortgages, with disastrous results for them and ultimately for all of us."
Affluenza has become such an accepted term that it has popped up in the court system as a defense for all manner of crimes. In one Texas drunken driving cases, a psychologist witness claimed the teen defendant "was a victim of 'affluenza' -- the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy," CNN reported.
The "Affleunza Defense" is not limited to that case. It has been used as an excuse/justification by defense attorneys all over the country, mostly as a way to get lighter sentences for their clients.
Affluenza can hurt the planet
For most people, affluenza doesn't involve a courtroom. But it's not just our bank accounts that can be hurt by overconsumption; the practice can literally be bad for the Earth.
"The biggest effect is the impact on our environment, both through over-use of resources and pollution/waste generation," the author said. "We are already in annual overshoot of Earth's limits in terms of what the planet can renew each year."
De Graaf also believes the desire to spend on personal items even when they make no sense impacts the public sector. He said it encourages an individualistic, anti-tax approach as people want to spend all their money on private goods. That can be bad for not only the planet and more locally, the community, it can also be bad for the individual's health.
"That depletes our public goods such as education, spending on parks, social services and so forth," he added. "It also leads us to work far more than is good for our health, resulting in extra stress and costly treatments. And it doesn't work; people with a materialistic orientation to life consistently report lower life satisfaction than people who are less materialistic."
Overconsumption is bad for the economy
Affluenza was not the sole cause of the 2008 economic crash, but it was an important factor, which was exacerbated by the deregulation of banking and other developments, de Graff said.
"Affluenza also harms our balance of trade as we buy more and more cheap foreign products and go deeper in debt to pay for them," he added. "It is one of the world's few socially sanctioned addictions. the focus on private consumer goods also weakens social connection and social capital."
The author acknowledged that this harm does not always show up in GDP and other traditional economic figures, which he considers poor measurements of economic success because they "count anything as an economic 'good' if money is spent on it."
Those figures leave out "the negative externalities of affluenza -- health costs, environmental clean-ups, mental health costs, prisons, rapid waste of natural resources, for example -- are generally counted as a plus in GDP," he stated. "We can't fully know the economic impacts till we get a true measure of what economic progress is."
Is there a cure for Affluenza?
While affluenza is not a real disease, it still needs to be treated, and de Graff has a prescription for anyone so afflicted.
"It's simple," he said. "The best things in life aren't things."
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He has been afflicted with affluenza but is in remission. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.