Why We Feel Worse as Our Lives Improve:

Why We Feel Worse as Our Lives Improve:

An Interview with Gregg Easterbrook

by Barbara Stahura

Over the last half-century, life in the Western world has been improving steadily by nearly all measures. We now have the best healthcare the world has ever seen, the highest real incomes in history, easier access to higher education for huge numbers of people, an abundance of material goods that make life easier and more enjoyable, longer and healthier lives, food so plentiful it’s tough to stay thin, and a cleaner environment. All these factors have made life in general better for nearly everyone. At the same time, the number of people who say they are happy has not risen appreciably and, even more startling, the rates of clinical depression are up to ten times higher than they were in the 1950s.

So says Gregg Easterbrook in his latest book, The Progress Paradox. A writer for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Wired and other publications, and currently a Visiting Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institute, Easterbrook explores this puzzlement in depth, using the latest studies and research from a variety of fields. He employed his skills in investigative reporting, his expertise in Christian theology and quality-of-life issues, and his sensibilities as an optimist to compile this brilliant, intriguing look at mounting unhappiness in an increasingly abundant world.

Is there anything we can do to feel better? Most definitely, he says. Furthermore, it costs nothing and can make our lives more satisfying and worthwhile than absolutely anything money can buy.

Science of Mind: Why did you believe it was necessary to write a book like this?

Gregg Easterbrook: I started in the late 1990s, when the Right and the Left were virulently denouncing each other about whether the country was declining. This was during the period before 9/11 when every indicator out there was positive, including the best economy the country had ever known. Yet if you listened to people talking in Washington, there seemed to be a competition of liberals and conservatives talking about the situation in the most dire terms possible. I’d look out the window and say, the sky looks pretty blue to me; what are these guys talking about? So I started working on this book. Originally it was just going to be an argument that most trends are positive and getting better for most people, and how that had been the case for a long time. But then I came across all this psychological data showing that people were no happier as a result. So the book became more complex for me; it became The Progress Paradox, the question of why the fact that things are getting better doesn’t seem to make people any happier.

Why do you think it is so easy for people to fall into a woe-is-me attitude even when we can see that things, on an objective level, are pretty good?

I present many possibilities on why people persist in being dissatisfied despite how well things go. There is some likelihood that we may be genetically conditioned to think in this way. We may all be descended from the discontent of the primordial past. There is a serious possibility that our ancestors were likely to be unhappy or at least wary, scanning the horizon for predators, and not satisfied with how much they possessed, no matter how much they possessed. They were the ones more likely to survive and pass their mindsets down to us, whereas our ancestors who were more happy-go-lucky stopped to smell the roses and got eaten by something. Genes are not destiny; they’re only one of many factors making us who we are. But we should just be aware that we may be genetically inclined to be discontent. It’s a survival strategy.

I think a big effect on why so many people don’t believe things are getting better is the way the media function. The media get ever more efficient at scaring us. And by the same token,  the media are getting constantly better at covering the world’s news. It’s amazing how you can click on CNN or Fox News or any of those channels, and get minute-by-minute readouts of everything that’s happening everywhere in the world. But what you’re getting are readouts of everything negative that’s happening in the world. You never hear anything about a reform that’s worked or anything that’s been successful  or a tragedy that’s been averted or anything like that. In a world of 6 billion people, there is always something that’s burning or blowing up or being surrounded by police officers, and if you only see the images of those events, you get the impression that the whole world is going to hell. To some extent, the sheer efficiency of the news media is one thing counteracting what would otherwise be an improvement in our general sense of well-being.

I was surprised to read in your book that the rates of clinical depression are about ten times higher than they were fifty years ago. What are we so depressed about?

There’s been a lot of statistical dispute about how much higher the rates of depression are now. Various researchers put the numbers at anywhere from three to ten times as high based on population. Of course, some of that is better diagnosis. Some of it is the end of the taboo related to depression. But it’s undeniable that all throughout the Western world, in the United States, Canada, all the European Union nations, Japan, and Australia, the rates of depression are way, way up. In a sense, I think this is a phenomenon of luxury, in that there are now millions and millions of people who have the leisure time in which to become depressed. And it’s much better that people live in relative affluence in comfortable houses and physical security with health care and so on and then get depressed about it than the many other possible alternatives, like living in desperation as so many people do in the developing world—there’s no time to get depressed because you’re worried about eating. So, as I say in The Progress Paradox, in a way, it’s sort of a positive sign because it shows that the world is producing enough affluence to protect depressed people. But still it is a deep and puzzling paradox that as life gets better for most people in the Western world, a large cohort have responded by becoming unhappy about it.

Do you think that as we become more affluent we become more self-absorbed and that could lead to more depression?

I think that’s the explanation for some people, although not for everybody. Psychological studies clearly show what you would expect: If you base your life around material things, you will not be happy. Studies clearly show that the poor are rendered unhappy by poverty, which makes common sense. But once income reaches a fairly low level, about $10,000 per capita, which is a low level—and in the United States, I think it’s about $32,000  per capita in current dollars, which is enough to ensure that you have food on the table and a roof over your head—then income and happiness de-couple and cease to have anything to do with each other, and rising income doesn’t make people any happier.

Studies have shown that the people who have oriented their lives around material things are less happy than the population as a whole. That’s about what you would expect. Material possessions themselves cannot bring happiness. Most of what really makes us happy and satisfied in life cannot be bought in a store. It’s love, respect, family, honor, a sense of worth in the community, a sense that our work carries meaning. All of those things cannot be purchased. Having more money doesn’t help you acquire them, so I guess it’s no surprise that people who chase after material stuff are unhappy as a result.

Actually, what’s really annoying is what I call the revenge of the credit card. That means not having something can make you unhappy, but then getting that thing doesn’t make you happy. If what you long for is a BMW convertible, or a tennis bracelet, or some physical thing that you desire, sitting around pining for it clearly makes you unhappy. It’s been shown that when the person who desired the BMW or the tennis bracelet finally gets it, they have a brief moment of happiness, and then a week later, they’re right back where they were before.

Here’s something I found startling in The Progress Paradox: that the chronically ill, even quadraplegics, are likely to be more satisfied or happier than lottery winners.

Yes, studies have found that, although only very slightly. The most dramatic study compared lottery winners to quadraplegics. Lottery winners as a group were very close to miserable. They felt betrayed by materialism. You win $10 million and you think, oh, this money’s going to make me happy. A year later, it’s all gone, you’ve lost your friends, and you’re wishing you’d never won the lottery. It’s a counterintuitive thought that quadraplegics should be happier than the public as a whole, but they are slightly happier. The thinking is that being handicapped, although making your life extremely challenging, also gives you a heightened appreciation for the value of your own life. People who have extreme physical handicaps, as a group, tend to be slightly more grateful for their lives than people who have no problems at all.

I’m intrigued by your idea that being forgiving, grateful, and optimistic  is not only good in a spiritual sense but is really in our best interest.

As it says in The Progress Paradox, these are selfish reasons to become a better person. People who are forgiving, optimistic, and grateful as a whole are happier than other people, have better marriages, earn more, have fewer heart attacks. They live longer. These things hold even when you factor out health differences among people. If people hear this message—not just that it’s the right thing to do but because you yourself will be happier as a result—I think that’s a pretty powerful, persuasive argument, and it would help people come around to that way of thinking.

You wrote a great deal in the book about positive psychology.  What exactly is it, and why is it important to happiness?

For most of the 20th century the focus of psychology as an academic discipline was on neurosis. It was on trying to figure out why some people become insane or maladjusted, and how to treat them. Roughly 20 years ago, some psychologists began asking themselves the flip side of that question: Why do some people become sane? Why are some people totally happy and altruistic and sane, and why does that occur? This was the founding insight of positive psychology. Positive psychologists, unlike determinists and others who came before them, believe that most human behavior is learned. We’re not automatons, as the behaviorists said, but we learn our behaviors and make choices about our behaviors. The positive psychology crowd believes we can learn to be optimistic, forgiving, grateful, and have other positive qualities, and that we can structure educational environments for kids and lifelong adult environments where we can encourage those qualities.

When I say you can encourage optimism, I don’t mean a naïve sort of denial of reality. Optimistic people are totally aware that the world is full of problems, but an optimistic person believes the problems can be overcome, or at least that it’s worth trying, whereas a pessimistic person believes we might as well give up. And as a group, optimistic people, even though they’re aware that the world is full of problems, live longer, have higher incomes, longer marriages. They have fewer incidents of stroke and depression and other things. So it’s clearly in your self-interest to cultivate some of these properties, and the positive psychology crowd has been figuring out ways that people can do it.

Do you think that people with  a clearly-defined life purpose tend to be happier than people who don’t have one?

Oh, yes. Research shows that people with a sense of meaning in life, a sense of purpose, are much happier and have a much higher sense of well-being than people who believe that life is meaningless or have no sense of purpose. I think that’s one of the big developments of the post-war era. At the same time that the physical circumstances of life have improved in the Western world, where our earning power has dramatically improved—since 1950, the per capita real income has almost trebled in the United States; it’s been a spectacular rise—and yet in the same period, people are no happier. Well, what other things have happened at that same time? One of the things that’s happened is that people have been increasingly convinced that life is meaningless. Far more people go to college than ever before, and that’s great. But what do they teach you in college? They teach you that your life is meaningless, that we’re all an accident of amino acid exchange, that there’s no point, the universe is simply a hollow function of entropy calculations, and the like. So the fact that people’s living circumstances have risen at the same time that their belief in meaningless has risen—it may be no coincidence that these two forces are offsetting each other.

It’s in your self-interest to believe that your life has meaning. You can derive these things from religion, or you can derive those views from secular philosophy. You certainly don’t have to believe that there is a divine being to believe that your life has meaning. Everything could be accounted for by evolution, and we would still have purpose and meaning in life. But it is critical that you believe your life has some purpose.


This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Science of Mind.

Copyright 2005, Barbara Stahura

Barbara Stahura, a Tucson freelance writer, often writes about original and transformative approaches to the ordinary. Her articles and essays have appeared in Science of Mind, The Progressive, Science & Spirit, MSNBC.com, and Spirituality & Health, among many other publications. Her Web site is http://www.clariticom.com.