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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Book review: The Progress Paradox

Recently I joined Shelfari, a social networking/book club thing, because I clearly was not wasting enough time blogging or surfing the web. At any rate, it has helped me remember the books I promised myself to read and I've decided to write reviews of the nonfiction I read to both share something of my interests with y'all and to help me remember what I've read.

So here's the latest: The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook. It's a part of my "read the books you get as gifts" program - this one's from Dad.

I'd call the book 1/3 excellent and 2/3 overdone. The first third of the book focuses on the litany of ways the Western world has improved: environment, health, longevity. More people than ever have sufficient food, shelter, and material goods. Things are better than they ever have been, says Easterbrook. That this litany takes so long is probably the point, but by page 20 I was pretty done with hearing how great life is. I believe it, but that's not the "paradox," so let's get to it, eh?

The paradox is that despite all this material progress, happiness in Western countries hit a plateau in the 1950s. In fact, while portion of people saying they are happy has leveled off, the number reporting being "very happy" has declined and the number of depressed has increased. Why, amidst all this abundance, would that be?

Easterbrook initially fingers a number of social pressures. The news has a penchant for the negative, highlighting what's wrong instead of what's right. People seem configured to complain, to find the pieces of their life that are going wrong instead of right. Commercials help cram people into the role of victims. He even wonders if complaint was perhaps an evolutionary tactic to encourage people to continue to pursue progress.

But these are universal social pressures and wouldn't explain some of the deviations. For example, the disabled and chronically ill generally report being happier than the population at large. Happiness generally increases with age. And while lacking money makes a person unhappy, having it does not make someone happy.

And this is where The Progress Paradox gets interesting. Easterbrook examines some of the psychology behind our life of abundance and wonders if we have "woken up from the American Dream." In other words, we've achieved the material objectives of the Dream, and no longer have something to look forward to. Material wants and needs are met, so there's nothing to aspire to. He offers a tantalizing illustration: most people would be happier with an income of $50,000 that would increase by $5000 a year than with a flat annual income of $250,000. Happiness is a sense of progress, not achievement.

He also examines two components of modern Western life that may exacerbate any sense of unhappiness: privacy and freedom. He notes that for people living in crowded space, falling over family members and villagers, the private space accorded the typical Westerner would seem wonderful. Houses with twice as many rooms as occupants! On the other hand, this privacy and space leaves us with less context for our personal failings - who do we rely on when we fail? How do we see the big picture of the community when we are isolated from it?

The freedom accorded to individuals may also affect happiness. When we fail or are rejected, we can't explain it to ourselves as a class bias or caste system. Instead, rejection is much more personal. Easterbrook says this is particularly hard for women, for whom roles were much more prescribed in earlier days.

The one piece Easterbrook dismisses is the idea that we are more stressed. He notes that the subsistence farmer of the 19th century had his and his entire family's livelihood on the line with each season and that the idea we are more stressed is laughable. But he concedes that we are given more to stress about thanks to 24-hour disaster coverage from the news. Furthermore, our chronic sleep shortage (2-3 hours less per night than our forbears) causes a buildup of more stress-related chemicals. The human brain is also remarkably efficient at creating mental pathways for stress and fear, and the constant repetition of fears via the media can make us more fearful of minimal threats.

The solution, according to Easterbrook, is pretty much "doing good." First, he notes that feeling good about the world is completely natural. Darwin, for example, thought that emotional states were also evolutionary and that good emotions (such as cooperation and love) served an evolutionary purpose. Although the feelings may be innate, Easterbrook notes that they take work - you have to train yourself to think positively. But it works. "Quadriplegics, as a group, have a higher sense of well-being than lottery winners." It probably wasn't innate.

There's also a selfish reason to do good - it makes you happier. "Men and women should forgive most of the wrongs and offenses they experience in life...for the self-interested reason that people who let go of their grievances are better off as a result."

Easterbrook should have ended the book there, but I think he felt obligated to note that there are many challenges in the world and that they are solvable. So you end up being dragged away from his main premise into "here's how we might save the world" chapter before you finally hit the endnotes. But I think the take-away is still worth the read: do well unto others because it will do well unto you.

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