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The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950.

The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950. By Avner Offer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xviii + 454 pp.).

In The Challenge of Affluence, Avner Offer explores the "paradox of affluence"--why "the flow of new goods can undermine the capacity to enjoy them." [p. 2] He suggests that since the end of World War II, America has experienced the effects of this paradox, and that the U.K. is following in its footsteps. Both nations enjoy affluence, but, overall, their citizens' happiness is not increasing. Why is this?

Offer suggests that such a situation has arisen because of "myopic choice"--consumer decisions that may bring pleasure in the short term but harm in the long term. Essentially, citizens of affluent societies have lost the ability to control themselves--an irony in an economic system that for so long depended on self-control and delayed gratification. In modern consumer society, rewards and pleasures come at such a rapid rate that individuals have insufficient time to master strategies of self-discipline.

According to Offer, the problem of diminished self-control in the midst of abundance has become acute over the last 50 years, and worsened since the 1970s. It was then that the U.S., and to some extent, the U.K., began to move away from collectivist goals and towards the promotion of individual pleasure and profit.

Offer supports these claims with general studies of well being and affluence and with more in-depth examinations of particular products and social trends. His first chapters, densely written economic analyses, show that while affluence has increased in many western industrialized countries, happiness levels have either stagnated or declined since the 1970s. Affluence has made people happier, but overall, they might have been better off with slightly less.

More interesting to social and cultural historians are his examinations of particular innovations of consumer society and their effects on social well being. He explores how advertising undermines trust by making individuals doubt claims--both those found in ads, and those made by neighbors and friends. Ads take on a falsely sincere tone; consumers realize this and become cynical not just about advertisements but about other forms of rhetoric and interaction as well.

If consumer society makes doubters of its citizens, it also harms them in other ways. Offer explains how members of affluent societies have become obese as a result of myopic choices. Consumer society also offers a host of distracting devices--radios, televisions, dvds, and ipods-which provide recreation and sensual gratification, but little else. Consumers are more interested in purchasing these devices than in buying time-saving appliances, yet quickly tire of the amusement they provide.

Affluence has more pernicious effects. According to Offer it not only deadens senses and weighs down bodies, it affects self-image and relationships. The cost of low status in an affluent society is high--individuals suffer physical and psychological woes; violence increases at lower socio-economic levels as well. Marriage also changes in the midst of plenty. Individuals are more likely to invest in short-term pleasure than commit to long- term relationships. Love, in short, has become just another commodity. As a result of the emotional volatility brought on by unstable family relationships, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have increased in affluent nations.

The Challenge of Affluence makes an interesting and provocative argument; chapters build upon chapters, and by the end of the book, Offer has drawn a damning portrait of consumer society. The portrait is sweeping; few individuals populate it, for this is a book about behavior in the aggregate. That approach makes economic forces seem extremely powerful, and individual consumers exceedingly weak. Men and women have little agency in Offer's portrayal. He suggests that the ability to fight some of the temptations of affluence increases with education and cultural capital; nevertheless, there is little individual will on display in this book. He says as much when he writes, "I see the prime driver in technological change and its concomitant, economic growth. Individuals respond primarily to what is placed before their eyes, by parents, schools, partners, work, markets. They cannot envisage the social consequences of their individual choices, and even if they could, they would not be able to change them." [p. 365] While Offer's basic point, that consumerism gives birth to new types of unhappiness and pathologies, is well-supported and compelling, his mode of explanation underestimates the variety of human motivations, desires, and abilities. It is also somewhat monocausal. Surely it is not just affluence that lies at the root of these problems.

Another question that crops up is how much of this behavior is actually new. Offer suggests these changes occurred after World War II. However, much of what he has to say about America has been circulating since the 19th century. Tocqueville, for instance, noted that Americans exhibited a "strange melancholy ... in the midst of abundance," and wrote of a "disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances." He characterized Americans as obsessed with physical pleasure, ever eager to move one step higher on the status ladder, ceaselessly striving for better things, never happy where they were. This constant struggle for advancement resulted in high rates of insanity in the U.S. (1) Later authors also concluded that affluence did not bring happiness. During the late nineteenth century, a host of observers worried that bourgeois Americans were becoming pale, flabby creatures, victims of the modern comforts they had created. Americans' desires--for wealth, comfort, new things--have long troubled observers. This is not to say that Offer's analysis is wrong; merely that the problem he describes is not new.

Yet Offer's approach is novel. Historians of consumer society generally rely on research traditions within the humanities rather than on statistical studies from the social sciences. Offer bucks this trend and uses the tools of an economist to reveal important trends within American and British culture. The Challenge of Affluence should interest economic, cultural, and social historians. Ultimately, it is an interesting and compelling book, and makes an important, if controversial, point.

Susan J. Matt

Weber State University


(1.) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York, 1969), 536-538.
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Author:Matt, Susan J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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