The American Psychological Association (APA) recently released its annual 2015 Stress in America survey. For the 9th straight year (since the survey began), financial issues were reported as the number one stressor in America. Even while many parts of the U.S. economy have shown a resurgence, many Americans are reporting that financial strain continues to take its toll, likely having significant effects on our health and well-being. Those reporting the most stress are parents, millennials (18 to 35 year-olds), and Gen Xers (36 to 49 year-olds). Thirty-one percent noted that financial challenges were a significant cause of conflict in their relationships; nearly 20% noted that they have either skipped or nearly skipped medical treatments because of money concerns. Although no difference in stress was reported between those with different incomes in the survey’s inception in 2007, those earning less than 50,000 today reported significantly more anxiety than those that earned more.
What the APA press release fails to mention is a broader story of the challenges that many face in making ends meet as partially told in a book by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell. This is the story of a generation that has become enamored with all that credit and creative, if not chancy, endeavors can buy. Ninety-three percent of teenage girls say that shopping is their favorite activity. Adjusting for inflation (using 2002 standards), the average kitchen in 1955 cost 9,000 dollars; less than 50 years later, the average kitchen priced in at 57,000 dollars. As I noted in my January article, Americans spend a mean of 671 dollars per year on youth sports. Birthday parties have routinely gone from a gift of a doll, a birthday cake, and invitations to a few to presents of $400 dollar iPods, huge guest lists, and bounce houses galore. Of course, these shindigs have nothing on extravaganzas showcased on the MTV hit My Super Sweet 16, which features live concerts and 50,000 dollar luxury cars as gifts for the ultra-wealthy adolescent.
But it is not just those of affluence taking to the new trend. The number of vehicles grew by 144% from 1969 to the late 90’s while the number of drivers increased by just 72%. The amount of retail space per person in the United States is 39.2 square feet compared to 20.4 square feet in Australia, 14 in the United Kingdom, and 10.8 in Japan. Black Friday has turned from an early morning shopping spree to a Thanksgiving Day crasher. The average square footage of a home in 1970 was approximately 1,500 square feet; in 2005, it was over 2,400 feet. Ten percent of U.S. homes were 2,400 square feet or larger in 1970; well over 40% are today. The irony is that families are only getting smaller. Virtually no homes in 1970 had three or more bathrooms. Today over 25% sport this amenity. The average monthly cable bill in 2011 was 86 dollars and is projected to be 123 dollars (1,476 dollars per year) by the time 2015 is over. The average monthly mobile bill in 2015: 73 dollars per month. Total video game expenditures in the United States in 2012 were almost 22 billion dollars. Average credit card debt is over 11,000 dollars—triple what it was in 1990.
I am a father of six young children and a sole wage earner. I understand stressors that come with providing for many needs, today and for years to come, even though I am fortunate to have a good job with insurance benefits. But every time one of a similar survey provides an overview of the significant stress that many of us feel related to money, there is a huge elephant sitting next door that remains very quiet. No doubt that some people are strained by unforeseen, or unfortunate or difficult, circumstances. No doubt that all of us are financially stressed because what we believe we need or should have constitutes neither. And what APA, and many other entities like it are saying is that this is causing us significant stress, conflict, and angst.
To really break the ice, or the bank, I will call myself out as being greedy at times. There are certain things that I want, in the way I want them and just how and when I want them even when I could do just fine with something that costs less. This may sound harsh to some, as certainly having a desire for nice things does not necessarily make a person materialistic. Regardless, at times, greed takes hold of me. For all of you reading this, I will let you discern just how you personally feel about this topic. But if greed, or avarice, enters your equation, too, then there is something we must consider. Many of us were taught it was a transgression, and to this day it remains as one of the seven deadly sins. We were taught that if objects of our desire ruled us more than our faithful endeavors, and the desire and drive to follow Him, the results could be dire here and beyond.
For some, this is old news. For others, this is no news or even annoyingly irrelevant or frustratingly dogmatic news. But regardless of what kind of news this is to you, what matters to me and all of you is what really led to the press release after all. Financial difficulties do impact the health of our bodies, minds, and families. In our insatiable desire for more and more, we are taking a risk in that more might end up being less, and less might end up being more unnecessary obstacles to the very beings that all of us desire right now: health, happiness, and harmony. It’s a big gamble. As Mahatma Ghandi once said, “There is sufficiency in this world for man’s need, but not for man’s greed.”
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.