Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 23, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

HAPPINESS....I haven't commented on Gregg Easterbrook's new book The Progress Paradox because I haven't read it. (Seems fair, doesn't it?) But he has a related op-ed in the LA Times today where he repeats the main theme of the book:

By practically every objective measure, American life has been getting better for decades.

Standards of living keep rising....crime has dropped spectacularly....discrimination is down substantially. Yet despite all these positive indicators, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "happy" has not increased since the early 1950s, while incidence of depression keeps rising and was doing so long before the morning of Sept. 11.

This is the progress paradox: Life gets better while people feel worse....Today, tens of millions of Americans have things their parents or grandparents could only dream of nice houses, college educations. Though that is obviously good, Americans are finding that merely possessing the good life does not ensure happiness.

I just don't understand this thesis. After all, you hardly have to be a committed Buddhist to realize that material progress doesn't bring happiness.

Think of it in reverse. If material progress did make us happier, then pretty much every previous generation would have been less happy than the following one. On average, then, our parents would be a little less happy than us, our grandparents a little less happy still, all the way back to our pyramid-building ancestors in Egypt a few hundred generations ago, who ought to have been so unhappy that they all committed mass suicide.

But they didn't. In fact, not only are we no happier than our parents' generation, but we don't really seem to be any happier than any previous generation. Surely this indicates that happiness is only tangentially related to material gain?

Given this, why write an entire book expressing puzzlement at the fact that material gain doesn't bring happiness? Shouldn't that have been pretty obvious in the first place?

Kevin Drum 9:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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