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The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook



Rating: (Recommended)


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Gregg Easterbrook explores an interesting thesis in his new book, The Progress Paradox. By all measurable means, life has improved for most Americans over the past 50 years. However, some studies show that the percentage of the population that claims to be happy remained unchanged. Also, reported depression and stress seem to have increased. If we’re so much better off, why aren’t we happy? In under 400 pages, Easterbrook tries to answer the question and provide some tangible advice: be more grateful about what we have. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, “More of Everything Except Happiness,” pp. 163-166:

If you sat down with a pencil and graph paper to chart the trends of American and European life since the end of World War II, you’d do a lot of drawing that was pointed up. Per-capita income, “real” income, longevity, home size, cars per driver, phone calls made annually, trips taken annually, highest degree earned, IQ scores, just about every objective indicator of social welfare has trended upward on a pretty much uninterrupted basis for two generations. Many subjective graphs would also show steady upward trends: personal freedom, women’s free­dom, reduction of bias against minority groups.

But your graphs would lose their skyward direction when the topics turned to the inner self. The trend line for happiness has been flat for fifty years. The trend line is negative for the number of People who consider themselves “very happy,” that percent­age gradually declining since the 1940s. And the trend line would cascade downward like water over a falls on the topic of avoiding depression. Adjusting for population growth, ten times as many people in the Western nations today suffer from “uni­polar” depression, or unremitting bad feelings without a specific cause, than did half a century ago. Americans and Europeans have ever more of everything except happiness.


Drawn to this paradox of progress, in recent years a number of researchers have begun to study happiness or “subjective well-being,” in the ten-dollar term that researchers prefer. They join the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting polls on the topic since just after the end of World War II. So far the findings of such re­search have been published mainly in academic treatises, such as Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies by Robert Lane, a political scientist at Yale University. Roughly 60 percent of Americans described themselves as “happy” in the year 1950, Lane found, and the figure has not changed since, except for tiny ticks up and down. Through the same period, the portion of Americans who call themselves “very happy” has declined from about 7.5 percent in 1950 to about 6 percent today. The decline of the “very happy” class continues, while the big action is the increase in the depressed class.


About 25 percent of Americans and Europeans now experi­ence at least one bout of depression in their lives—clinical in the sense of sustained or debilitating, not just a few days of being in a bad mood. A study by Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School recently estimated that 6.6 percent of Americans now experience at least one episode per year of “major” depression, not just bad feelings, but the kind of depression that makes you not want to get out of bed.


Incidence of bipolar or “manic” depression, the condition in which a person alternates between bouts of animated glee and immobilizing gloom, has not increased during the postwar era; this illness is now thought to be mainly chemical in origin, and is treated with drugs. Unipolar depression, on the other hand, just keeps rising in incidence, with no end in sight. Unipolar de­pression is thought not to be a physical disease; something within our society, or within our own minds, causes it. And though the rising rate of Western depression may relate to some extent to better diagnosis and the loss of taboo associated with this topic—often the depressed of previous centuries were qui­etly kept in darkened rooms and not discussed—a tenfold in­crease in two generations is far too great to be an artifact of improved diagnosis alone.


From the standpoint of happiness math, it should be reiter­ated that it is far better there be millions of free, prosperous peo­ple who have the time and leisure in which to become depressed—many undergoing their depressions in nice houses and attempting to distract themselves with nice vacations or nice dinners out—than numerous possible alternatives. Unipolar de­pression has not risen in the developing world, probably because so many people there are focused on simply staying alive that they have no time or leisure in which to experience depressed frames of mind. Many of our ancestors might also have been so engaged in constant exertion, and so dependent on each day’s work outcome for sustenance, as to have had no time for de­pressing moods. Our ancestors might also have had few expec­tations beyond daily exertion, and thus been less prone to suffering depression in response to setbacks. The United States and European Union generate enough wealth to spoil their citi­zens with depression; huge numbers of people in these places can, in terms of money or time, afford to feel badly.


Yet unhappiness is a genuine concern. Unhappy people are not merely feeling sorry for themselves or guilty of descent into solipsism, although of course there are examples of both. (We all know people who trudge around acting theatrically disconso­late, to the point at which there is temptation to shove the per­son against the wall and holler, “You idiot, snap out of it!”) Most men and women who suffer depression are experiencing a condition they would like to escape, one that detracts from the quality of their lives. Millions of others are not clinically de­pressed but feel the sort of unfocused unease that prevents their one chance at life from conferring the satisfaction it should. This, too, is a genuine concern. Sadness should not be the de­fault human condition.

Happiness, in turn, is a worthwhile and important goal. To be happy is not an exercise in self-indulgence, rather, one of the pri­mary objectives of life. Aristotle called happiness “the highest good” and said that an enlightened society would be ordered with the goal of helping its citizens become happy. The framers of American democracy did not laud “the pursuit of happiness” because they considered this self-indulgence. Rather, they knew that happiness both ought to be a goal of life, and makes for bet­ter citizens. Dennis Prager has devoted an entertaining, quirky book, Happiness Is a Serious Problem, to the notion that peo­ple have a duty to become happy, because happiness is the well­spring of altruism. Higher up the scale of literature, a century ago the poet Robert Browning wrote, “Make us happy and you make us good”; twenty-three centuries before that, Aristotle said, “Living well and doing well are the same as being happy.” In Aristotelian usage, “doing well” meant exercising virtue. Aristotle and Browning both anticipated current research, by so­ciologist David Myers of Hope College and others, showing that happy people commit fewer crimes, donate more to charity, perform more volunteer work, are more likely to aid strangers, and exhibit other traits of virtuous citizenship.

I expect that other researchers would look at the same data Easterbrook used to support his premises, and come to different conclusions. Until then, get a little melancholy about the sad utopia in which we live as you read The Progress Paradox.

Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Progress Paradox.htm


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