January 11, 2004
"What good is happiness? It can't buy money."
– Henny Youngman
Social hypochondria is the national disease of the most successful nation. By most indexes, life has improved beyond the dreams of even very recent generations. Yet many Americans, impervious to abundant data and personal experiences, insist that progress is a chimera.
Gregg Easterbrook's impressive new book, "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse," explains this perversity. Easterbrook, a Washington journalist and fellow of the Brookings Institution, assaults readers with good news:
American life expectancy has dramatically increased in a century, from 47 to 77 years. Our great-great-grandparents all knew someone who died of some disease we never fear. (As recently as 1952, polio killed 3,300 Americans.) Our largest public health problems arise from unlimited supplies of affordable food. The typical American has twice the purchasing power his mother or father had in 1960. A third of America's families own at least three cars. In 2001 Americans spent $25 billion – more than North Korea's GDP – on recreational watercraft.
Factor out immigration – a huge benefit to the immigrants – and statistical evidence of widening income inequality disappears. The statistic that household incomes are only moderately higher than 25 years ago is misleading: households today average fewer people, so real dollar incomes in middle-class households are about 50 percent higher today.
Since 1970 the number of cars has increased 68 percent and the number of miles driven has increased even more, yet smog has declined by a third and traffic fatalities have declined from 52,627 to 42,815 last year.
In 2003 we spend much wealth on things unavailable in 1953 – a cleaner environment, reduced mortality through new medical marvels ($5.2 billion a year just for artificial knees, which did not exist a generation ago), the ability to fly anywhere or talk to anyone anywhere.
The incidence of heart disease, stroke and cancer, adjusted for population growth, is declining. The rate of child poverty is down in a decade. America soon will be the first society in which a majority of adults are college graduates.
And so it goes. But Easterbrook says that such is today's "discontinuity between prosperity and happiness," the "surge of national good news" scares people, vexes the news media and does not even nudge up measurements of happiness. Easterbrook's explanations include:
"The tyranny of the small picture." The preference for bad news produces a focus on smaller remaining problems after larger ones are ameliorated. Ersatz bad news serves the fund raising of "gloom interest groups." It also inflates the self-importance of elites, who lose status when society is functioning well. Media elites, especially, have a stake in "headline-amplified anxiety."
"Evolution has conditioned us to believe the worst." In Darwinian natural selection, pessimism, wariness, suspicion and discontent may be survival traits. Perhaps our relaxed and cheerful progenitors were eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Only the anxiety-prone gene pool prospered.
"Catalogue-induced anxiety" and "the revenge of the plastic" both cause material abundance to increase unhappiness. The more we can order and charge, the more we are aware
of what we do not possess. The
"modern tyranny of choice" causes consumers perpetual restlessness and regret.
The "latest model syndrome" abets the "tyranny of the unnecessary" which leads to the "ten-hammer syndrome." We have piled up mountains of marginally improved stuff, in the chaos of which we cannot find any of our nine hammers, so we buy a tenth, and the pile grows higher. Thus does the victor belong to the spoils.
The cultivation – even celebration – of victimhood by intellectuals, tort lawyers, politicians and the media is both cause and effect of today's culture of complaint.
Easterbrook, while arguing that happiness should be let off its leash, is far from complacent. He is scandalized by corporate corruption and poverty in the midst of so much abundance. And he has many commonsensical thoughts on how to redress the imbalance many people feel between their abundance of material things and the scarcity of meaning that they feel in their lives. The gist of his advice is that we should pull up our socks, spiritually, and make meaning by doing good while living well.
His book arrives as the nation enters an election year, when the opposition, like all parties out of power, will try to sow despondency by pointing to lead linings on all silver clouds. His timely warning is that Americans are becoming colorblind, if only to the color silver.
GEORGE F. WILL can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.