Can Gratitude Cure Americans' Woes?

THE PROGRESS PARADOX

How Life Gets Better

While People Feel Worse

By Gregg Easterbrook

Random House -- 376pp -- $24.95

Much of what passes for public discourse these days is depressingly polarizing. In both broadcast and print media, it has become standard operating procedure for speakers to take extreme positions, treat counter-arguments with disdain, and assume that opponents are guided by the lowest of motivations.

So it comes as a relief to read journalist and social commentator Gregg Easterbrook's lively The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, draws upon both liberal and conservative sources and combines a vast amount of scholarly research and reporting to generate a thoughtful, sustained argument. The Progress Paradox attacks the apparent widespread belief, consistently reported by pollsters, that in the past quarter-century, Americans in the middle have lost economic standing and buying power, especially when compared with their parents and grandparents. Even in the boom years of the 1990s, Americans were telling pollsters that the country was "going downhill" and that their children faced "a declining future." The book offers a three-part response to such sentiments: an analysis of contemporary material life, an investigation into why so many people feel unhappy, and a set of prescriptions for treating social ills.

Easterbrook is well aware of poverty and the stresses of everyday life. But as far as he is concerned, the vast majority of Americans have never had it so good. The author notes, for instance, that in 1956 the typical American had to work 16 weeks for each 100 square feet of home purchased; it now takes 14 weeks of work, and the amenities are a lot nicer. Most families of that period had one car and strived to own two; today, a third of U.S. families own three cars or more. In previous generations, few children or teenagers had their own bedrooms, as they often do now. Travel abroad and ownership of fancy gadgets have likewise become commonplace.

The U.S. is advancing like gangbusters on many social issues, too: The workforce has never been so highly educated. Americans are living longer, healthier lives. Crime is down. The environment is cleaner. To be sure, inequality has widened, but if you take out the impact of immigrants, inequality is declining for the remaining 89% of the population, largely driven by African Americans' rising incomes.

O.K., if everyone is so much better off, then why has the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "happy" not budged in half a century? Some of today's negativity probably reflects an overly romantic vision of our parents' circumstances. Easterbrook also points to such theories as "collapse anxiety," a fear that good times are sure to end, and "catalog-induced" worry that one cannot afford all of society's goodies. But in the end, he falls back on the age-old insight that wealth can't overcome a sense that life lacks purpose. "Most of what people really want in life -- love, friendship, respect, family, standing, fun -- is not priced and does not pass through the market," he writes.

The author assembles his upbeat argument without the mawkishness of a Deepak Chopra. But at times he treads a fine line. In a section devoted to the power of learned optimism, he considers recent psychological research that suggests that people who regularly practice gratitude, forgiveness, and an appreciation of material blessings are more optimistic and happier than others. But Easterbrook isn't a don't-worry-be-happy type: He makes clear how wrong it is for Americans to tolerate extreme poverty. He offers a persuasive case for turning the minimum wage into a living wage, for developing universal health insurance, and for devoting more resources to raising global living standards, which he sees as key to fixing other earthly woes.

Last month, I traveled to Northern California to visit two old college pals. Driving around Marin County's Point Reyes peninsula, we got into a huge argument: My friends said the planet would collapse if all nations tried to equal America's standard of living. Drawing upon Easterbrook's book, I was able to argue forcefully for the opposite point of view. By day's end we still hadn't agreed. But the book had fueled a spirited yet civilized discussion -- and maybe that is the highest compliment an author can receive.

By Christopher Farrell

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