Dr Oliver James is not only overrated, he is underchallenged, too. The telly-shrink has occasionally been mocked for his tittle-tattle and psycho-babble, but when it comes to the big stuff he gets away with murder. He says that western capitalism has produced a "low serotonin society" of people oppressed and depressed by the disease of "affluenza" and status anxiety, both features of the nastiness promoted by The Selfish Capitalist (the title of his slight 2008 book, published by Vermilion) and neo-liberal economics. He can't remotely prove these things. Yet they seem to be widely accepted as a sort of mood music.
Even the Tory modernisers largely fell for the affluenza argument. It fitted nicely with the remodelling work begun with their "blue is the new green" and "broken society" mantras. Perhaps when nasty Thatcherism has done the grim work of restoring our faltering path to growth, we will return to this kindly guff.
Affluenza is the latest in a long series of accessorised anxieties, like the nuclear and population bombs. They can be worn, even flaunted, without much trouble. Richard (Lord) Layard, Alain de Botton (formerly of this parish), Avner Offer, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (with their recent The Spirit Level), and Oliver James have pioneered a line which has rocketed to political, academic and media prominence without first having acquired many adherents or even critics. Theirs is not an argument that has inspired street protests or direct action. It has no grassroots political drivers. So it has achieved an ideological ideal, a painless ascendancy. It is the matching book-end to "Thatcherism". It appeals to everyone who hates "what we became in the '80s".
James's version has some attractive if banal features. He notes (quoting Avner Offer and every grandmother since the beginning of time) that one key to happiness is knowing the difference between "want" and "need". He is right that affluent moderns ought to try to be less self-obsessed.
But James is on to more wrong stuff. If you care to poke about the data, his various cases come unstuck. The data suggest (contrary to his take on it) that rich societies deliver happiness quite well. In spite of rising expectations (fuelled by rising standards), large majorities in rich societies declare themselves well satisfied as they have done since anyone bothered to ask. There is good evidence that rich people in rich societies are even happier than their poorer fellow-citizens.