What I witnessed as a teenager, and into my 20’s, was that one of the contributors to entitlement was affluence. This really came together in my thinking when I saw a documentary called Affluenza on PBS in the late 1990’s. My husband and I loved it so much that we showed it to our bible study group at our church. The book it is based on shows all the negative side effects of the excessive pursuit of material gain. We had been married for 7 years by this point, and had no children, so it was easy to live out the alternative “bare-minimum” lifestyle the program talked about - simple cars, no cable, small house and a large savings account. We had our life pretty well together and the affluence wasn’t apparent. Then the kids came along, and like the frog in the kettle, increasing affluence crept into our home in small degrees, along with the entitlement monster, and we didn’t notice it until it was big enough to demand attention. Everyone is collecting silly bands? Then we must collect silly bands too! All Meagan’s friends have a DS? Well, then we better get her a DS. In Meagan’s mind, she is entitled to a DS, whether or not she understands entitlement.
Affluence is defined as “having an abundance of money, property, and other material goods.” Is it possible to be wealthy and not have entitlement or materialism ride along? Perhaps, but I don’t think it is too common. A recent article in the Scientific American had this to say:
“American families who make over $300,000 a year donate to charity a mere 4 percent of their incomes. The statistic should not be surprising, as studies by University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her collaborators have shown that merely glimpsing dollar bills makes people less generous and approachable, and more egocentric." (1)
The point is to not argue whether affluence is bad or good in itself, but rather how affluence can foster the wrong kinds of attitudes – like entitlement. This is becoming more and more apparent in the younger generations, due to media influences and parents indulging their children. One show that clearly demonstrates this is MTV’s show “My Super Sweet 16”, which highlights grossly entitled 15 year olds’ ridiculously extravagant 16th birthday parties. One kid in Season 3 got a $67,000 Lexus for her birthday, then melted down in a hatred-laced tantrum directed at her mom because it wasn’t presented to her at the exact right moment. Sophie, another girl on the show from Season 2, probably captured the entitled viewpoint best: “Sophie gets what Sophie wants and Sophie is always right”.
Many books and articles have been cropping up in the last decade on this topic of entitled, self-centered youth, and I touched on it a bit in the 2008 article "The Millennial Generation & Entitlement: How Should The Church Respond?" However, these were hardly prophetic, as the “entitlement monster” was already deep in the heart of a generation. It had grown large and burst out of its cage – hence it was hard to ignore – and it was thrashing about creating all sorts of havoc in the Millennial Generation. I like how Charlie Brooker put it in “How TV Ruined Your Life”:
“We are living in a world in which everyone expects the best of everything with the unhinged sense of entitlement that use to be solely reserved for insane roman emperors …The more we want the less satisfied we feel. Happiness seems perpetually out of reach. Why? Maybe somewhere along the way we started actually believing what this little electronic bullshitter was feeding us….by pumping dreams into your living room.”
People with more money do not become happier, and in some cases affluence reduces enjoyment. One study showed that as people acquire more money and buy more things, their capacity to enjoy them diminishes (2). Six years ago Forbes came out with an article entitled “Money won't buy you happiness - Higher income doesn't have a huge impact on long-term satisfaction.” One snipet...
“Surveys have found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich individuals on the Forbes 400 and the Maasai herdsman of East Africa. Lottery winners return to their previous level of happiness after five years. Increases in income just don't seem to make people happier…”
Other studies could be cited, but the research is consistent. Yet people still clamor for more, thinking it will make their life emotionally better. The website "affluence.org" verifies this with their tagline "Make Life Better" - and if you read their site, they don't just mean materially. Researchers of these studies have all sorts of theories for why people believe money makes them happy but results in the opposite, such as people are too stupid to know how to use the money to increase happiness. Another is that it’s chemical: the sensors in our brain that spark a high when we buy something new fade away after a short period of time, after which we need something bigger and better to get that jolt of happiness back. It could be neither, it could be both. I lean toward the idea that God didn’t design us to get happiness from money, but rather from what we can give to others.
Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 that “Blessed are the merciful”. The word “blessed” here in the Greek can also be translated “happy”. The word “merciful” in the Greek can be translated as “to have compassion.” If you go further back to the Hebrew-language origins of Jesus thinking, the Hebrew word for mercy is 'checed' and it means the ability to get right inside the other person's skin until we can see things with his/her eyes, think things with his/her mind, and feel things with his/her feelings. When someone is under the “affluence” of entitlement (haha), their focus is very self-centered, and if your focus is all on you and not others, then you can’t fully experience empathy, so you can’t be truly merciful. Thus, this avenue to authentic joy and happiness is closed to you.
Could it be that entitlement, stemming from affluence, is one of those factors that drives this desire for more? Once entitlement sets in, does it takes on a life of its own? I have seen this played out. My parents split up when I was 6, and for years I lived one week with my mother, then the next week with my father. My father was wealthy, and life consisted of living in a big house, eating at great restaurants and having a second home in Hawaii (on a golf course nonetheless). On the other hand, there was a time when my mother lived in a small, one bedroom apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood, and we had to feed three of us dinner for $1 or less. Needless to say I was surrounded by very affluent people when I was staying with my dad, and no so much with my mom. Most of the affluent people I saw felt entitled to not just what they had, but more. Conversations involved around their “stuff,” and they really weren’t too kind when people took things away or even got in their way of something they wanted. Then on the “other side of the tracks,” people seemed to take greater joy in the few things they did have and they SHARED more. There were exceptions on both sides, as I did know a few very affluent yet undemanding, generous people. And I met some needy people who were total jerks, consumed with gaining more. But in general, those with affluence were more entitled.
My conclusion? Living in a very affluent country contributes to entitlement, although it’s not only affluent people who struggle with entitlement. Again, we are raised in a selfish culture that constantly preaches the right to personal happiness to everyone, regardless of their income. But I suspect that affluence gives growth pills to the entitlement monster.