To be (Oliver James Part I)

Aware that this Blog has not covered psychotherapy as much as originally intended, I have spent the last ten days catching up with two best-selling books by the psychologist Oliver James: They F*** you up (2002), and Affluenza (2007).

My verdict? Very interesting, lively, recommended. But…

…perhaps the thing that struck me most were certain passages in Affluenza, which develop TFYU’s warning that the UK should not “follow in the footsteps of the most pathological developed nation on earth, the USA…[but should]…emulate the example set by so many of our European neighbours, like Denmark and France”(1).

By 2007, this trans-national analysis has focused on two particular evils: the “American way” of marketing, advertising and consumerism (2) and “the hollow ring of…American positive psychology”, with its “crude deletion of negative thoughts (3).

The basic idea is: “Studies from fourteen countries reveal that people who favour the key Virus values – money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and fame – are at greater risk of emotional distress”(2).

The author provides apparently clear answers: seek “authenticity” in activities and relationships; although beware that some apparently non-consumerist activities may be pursued for inauthentic “people-pleasing” reasons (4).

Conversely, if you “would like to be rich”, this may well be an authentic means to pursue such ends as “not to have to work all the time…[leaving] enough time to hang out with friends and family”(4). Presumably this applies to James himself, who happens to be in the “upper echelons” of society (5)
(although I doubt he would describe himself as “rich”).

To sort these pitfalls out is partly the task of psychotherapy, and I share the author’s approval of cognitive-analytic therapy (CAT), having myself had some experience of practising it in the early nineties, and knowing a senior CAT therapist for many years.

Few would argue that the US is not a world leader in marketing, advertising and consumerism, however I think there is a bit of grit in the oyster of James’ well-marketed argument. He relies on international data recording rates of distress and depression; but these are “soft”, difficult to make non-subjective, and depend on translation between languages and cultures.

The ultimate “hard” data relating to distress and depression are suicide rates, and the statistics have for decades indicated that Danish and French people deliberately end their lives much more often than Americans (6), despite living in cultures of “Being” rather than “Having”.

(1) They F*** you up (2002): paperback p300-301

(2) Affluenza (2007): paperback p12-14    (3) p142    (4) p180-2    (5) p97

(6) The suicide rate of Denmark has come down markedly since 1990,
and in 2005 was the same as the USA, whose rate has been stable (and not high in international terms) since the mid-1950’s. Oliver James states that
Denmark’s suicide rate is lower than that of Edinburgh (p109), but he gives no reference for this. The French suicide rate has also fallen, however in 2005 it remained 50% higher than that of the USA. The 2005 USA suicide rate for 15-24 year olds is double that of Denmark and 150% that of France: Affluenza mainly discusses older age groups, but it could be predicting sustained shifts in psychology and behaviour.

(Oliver James Part II: Review of Affluenza)

Published at on 4th February 2011; transferred to on 9th October 2011

‘(Oliver James Part I)’ added to title 29th March 2018

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About Dr Neil MacFarlane MRCPsych

Independent Psychiatrist providing culturally informed mental health opinion, advice, and a few new facts. Based near London, UK. Main qualifications: BA MBBS MA MRCPsych.

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  1. Finding the positive in Oliver James (part II) | DrNMblog - 8 May, 2018

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