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Everything is better except the way we feel (Scripps Howard News Service) January 20, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.
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An old cigarette commercial posed the question: Are you smoking more now but enjoying it less? Of course we understand how that might be true with an unhealthy addiction. But an insightful new book by Gregg Easterbook essentially asks that question about life itself: Are you living more now but enjoying it less?

Easterbrook’s “The Progress Paradox” brings together compelling data about the dramatic improvement in our quality of life and lays it alongside evidence that our inner feelings about life are actually worse. To put it another way, objectively life for the average American and European just keeps getting better and better, and yet somehow we feel worse and worse about it.

First, for the pessimists among us, comes Easterbrook’s parade of progress, an amazing array of statistics about the improving quality of life. From our lifespan, which has gone from 41 to 77 years in the last century, to our workload, which has dropped by roughly half in the last 200 years, the data trending strongly upward. Indeed, as Easterbrook points out, the average American or European lives better than 99 percent of all human beings who lived before them, including royalty (better health care and higher quality wine edge them out).

But opening a window on the inner life reveals a different picture. The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not budged since the 1950s, even though the typical person’s real income has doubled during that time. In a 1997 poll, 66 percent of Americans told pollsters they believed “the lot of the average person is getting worse.” Depression and loneliness are both on the rise.

A disconnect between prosperity and happiness is hardly a shocking discovery. Yet seeing it quantified so graphically and in such stark contrast sends both the reader and the author on a journey to find out why. Easterbrook posits several materialistic culprits he believes rob us of happiness:

– Many improvement bring unsettling results. Cars, for example, are helpful but don’t necessarily improve life. People just use them to travel farther, creating more traffic and parking problems.

– Solving one set of problems often creates another. Even though the new problems are smaller and less significant, we focus on them because they are new.

– Catalog-induced envy makes us want more and more. A need, George Will has written, “is defined in contemporary America as a 48-hour-old want.” The line between needs and wants has become hopelessly blurred.

– Anticipation-induced anxiety has grown, as the next generation no longer expects that life for them will be better.

– News organizations need crises and Americans are glad to watch them. This combines with compliant proficiency and abundance denial to create a negative attitude about life.

Not surprisingly the book seems stronger on diagnosis than on prescription. Of course the very idea of outer progress and inward discontent as a paradox suggests that is not a simple problem to be solved but rather a complex dilemma to be managed. And Easterbrook suggests several useful tools for managing the paradox, especially the usefulness of gratitude and forgiveness.

Unfortunately the author then turns away from individual, heart-driven solutions toward macro policy answers that do not seem to fit the bill. Prior solutions such as universal health insurance, or a higher minimum wage, or eliminating CEO’s greedy compensation packages do not seem to address the real problems the author identifies. What Alexander Solzhenitsyn said about good and evil — “the line … does not pass between principalities and powers but oscillates within the human heart” — seems all the more true for happiness and contentment.

In the end one can hope the answer is not to reduce material progress but to increase spiritual depth and meaning. If happiness is a fruit of serendipity of pursuing something else, we may look to future generations with some hope. Surveys of today’s college students indicate much stronger interest among them on family, spirituality and service to their community. Perhaps they will do a better job than we have in managing the progress paradox.

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