Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and The Washington Monthly, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for ESPN.com, and a sometimes lecturer. His book, The Progress Paradox, explores the connection between rising living standards and increasing unhappiness. Here, he discusses our inability to see the brighter side of contemporary life.
Q: What is the Progress Paradox?
A: The Progress Paradox is that rising living standards do not necessarily cause rising happiness.
Q: In what specific ways is society improving? Do we just have better stuff and more choices, or are the changes more significant?
A: Social improvement in the United States, Canada and European Union goes far beyond mere material concerns. Life expectancy and education levels are rising; crime, discrimination, disease rates and pollution (except greenhouse gases) are declining; and personal freedom has never been greater.
Q: If everything is getting better, why aren’t we happy?
A: One reason is that the things that really matter in life – love, honor, family, friends, and a sense of place in the community – cannot be purchased, so having more affluence does not help us in this regard. Affluence may backfire, by pushing people away from the community. I call this the “Nice Hotel Room” effect. Increasingly Americans, Canadians and Europeans live as if they had checked into a nice hotel room, which is good – but by themselves, which is bad.
Q: Why do so many people perceive that things (on a societal level) are getting worse?
A: Because the media have gotten so much better at showing us disasters and bad news. Most people say that what they personally experience, in their own communities and schools, is pretty good. [But] they also say the world is going to hell. That’s because the media only report bad news. You see constant images of scandal and violence on television, with no balancing reporting that most trends are favorable. Even trends in violence [are positive] – overall frequency and intensity of combat have declined worldwide in the last two decades, and an individual’s chance of being killed in war is, today, the lowest in human history.
Q: What’s the connection between income and happiness?
A: Poverty makes people miserable. But studies show that once a person’s basic material needs are met, money and happiness decouple. The Forbes 400, the richest 400 people in America, are no happier than the population as a whole according to one study.
Q: What role does consumerism play in our increasing unhappiness? How can money buy someone unhappiness?
A: Money cannot buy happiness – your grandmother was right – but paradoxically, it can buy unhappiness. I call this the “Revenge of the Credit Card.” If you order your life around getting money for the purpose of buying shiny, fancy stuff, you are almost certain to be disappointed – no matter how much stuff you acquire.
Q: Explain “choice anxiety” and “abundance denial.”
A: Choice anxiety is having so many possibilities that no matter which you choose, you will feel remorse over the ones not chosen – because you will never know if you chose correctly. (“The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz is a fine book on this point.)
Abundance denial is living an affluent life, yet denying you are well off because you want to feel sorry for yourself. [It’s] better to be grateful for abundance.
Q: How are we shifting from “material want” to “meaning want?”
A: As men and women meet their material needs, many realize what they really require is a sense of meaning in life — and meaning is much harder to obtain than physical possessions.
Q: What can we do to be happier?
A: Become grateful, optimistic and forgiving. These are not just altruistic virtues, they improve a person’s own sense of wellbeing. These are selfish reasons to become a better person!