Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook

"How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse"

By almost every measure, we're better off. We're healthier, richer, longer-lived, freer. And it isn't just Americans--even in the developing world people are healthier and richer on the average. Why are so many of us miserable and incessant complainers?

Gregg asserts that when you correct for the large population of first generation immigrants to America, there is no growing gap between rich and poor or rich and middle class. Crime is dropping, and "Leading a straight-arrow lifestyle is your best defense against becoming a crime victim." The air is cleaner. "During the 2000 presidential campaign much was made of the fact that Houston had taken over from Los Angeles as the nation's 'smog capital.' Hardly anyone added that this happened during a period when Houston's smog diminished; it's just that L.A. pollution declined even faster." The water is cleaner, and there are more forests than when Columbus landed. Car deaths are down; cars are more fuel efficient and even boast higher performance. Food is cheap, plentiful, and in a variety hardly known even to emperors of old. Information about virtually anything in the world is available in firehose quantities. Work is safer and less onerous (on the whole) than ever before. Marriages aren't disintegrating as frequently as in the recent past (I'm not sure my observations agree with his, though).

So why is depression so common, and why are people so anxious?

One obvious source is the bias in our information. When Bush delayed implementing new arsenic guidelines pending a review, it was front page New York Times news (misreported as a cancellation, in their now-customary creative approach to reporting). When the guidelines were approved, it was noted briefly on page 18. Fundraising groups hype the horrific possibilities lying in wait if you don't send money--sometimes hyping with deliberate omissions and sometimes with outright lies. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the law governing reporting in all our media, leading to "headline-amplified anxiety." Elites like a focus on bad news, since it offers them a raison d'etre.

Easterbrook spends the first few chapters explaining why things are actually going very well (almost all around the world), and then asking why we perceive it as bad. Then he looks at the relationship of money and possessions to happiness. The really poor tend to be unhappy; happiness rises with income up to a level commensurate with lower middle class; income and happiness are decoupled thereafter. Wants can never be satisfied, and you are likely to find yourself controlled by your possessions if you focus on acquisition: "The victor belongs to the spoils."

From the chapter "Stress--It's Nature's Plan" I took this excerpt:

Nevertheless many prominent researchers have embraces the estimate of a tenfold increase in unipolar depression in the Western nations. One who endorses this number is Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman has developed a four-step theory on why depression is rising so much.

The first cause, Seligman thinks, is individualism. "Unipolar depression is a disorder of the thwarting of the 'I,' and we are increasingly taught to view all through the 'I,'" Seligman believes. Past emphasis on family, faith, patriotism, and community was sometimes suffocating, but also allowed individuals to view their private setbacks as minor elements within a larger context. Today in the United States and Western Europe, where formal adherence to religion is declining, community loyalties are diluted by constant moving, families are smaller and fragile, and, where only a minority now tell pollsters they consider devotion to country important, the "I" is practically the only lens through which to view events. "Rampant individualism causes us to think that our setbacks are of vast importance and thus something to become depressed about," Seligman continues. If your life is centered in family, community, faith, or nationk, and things aren't going well for you, surely there will be some person or some part of an institution to whom you are connected for whom or where things are going well, or, at least, where the problems seem more important than yours. If, however, your life is centered on pure individualism and something goes poorly, there is no counterweight. You feel bad and nothing pulls you in the other direction.

From the beginning of the Enlightenment, through the establishment of Jeffersonian democracy, through the French existentialist movement and up to the present day, writers, thinkers, artists, and huge number of typical men and women have fought for the idea that people should be free agents, unhindered by the demands of church, state, or social convention. Now that condition is largely achieved in the West, bringing with it unprecedented liberty. But freedom isn't free, as military theorists like to say. In the case of depression, the cost of freedom is leaving every person to the fate of pure individualism, without consolation or context. But the setbacks that almost everyone endures may, in the unanchored framework of pure individualism, accumulate into a cause of depression--about which, then, you may have no one or no institution to turn to, other than the disembodied voice on the 800 number at your HMO.

As his second cause of the depression epidemic, Seligman blames the self-esteem craze. It may seem counterintuitive that focus on raising self-esteem, which is supposed to make people feel good, results in them becoming depressed. But then, many initiatives have unintended consequences. "Self-esteem emphasis has made millions think there's something fundamentally wrong if you don't feel good, as opposed to just, 'I don't feel good right now, but I will later,'" Seligman says. If you don't feel good now but will ater, that's a minor matter. If something is fundamentally wrong with your life, that's pretty depressing.

Self-esteem counselors and others in the movement maintain that people ought to feel good about themselves all the time, a notion most psychologists find hopelesssly unrealistic. Everyone has setbacks, or bad days, or simply periods of time when things are boring or crummy; don't obsess because you'll have better days, is Seligman's advice. The preaching of self-esteem, now common in public schools and in the midafternoon-television and talk-radio universe, instills the idea that a person ought always to be beaming with satisfaction, and if not, then he or she must have been wronged by someone or some institution and should be angry. Fixation on self-esteem may, in the end, only cause us to go looking for things to become upset about. People who go looking for things to become upset about rarely fail to find them.

Seligman's third cause of depression flows from the second, being the "postwar teaching of victimology and helplessness." Intellectuals, politicians, tort lawyers, and the media have in the last few decades become ever more proficient at discovering victims. So many classes of victimhood have been proclaimed that, in cumulative terms, today every person in the United States may be able to call himself or herself a victim or something or other; leaving aside the question of, if we're all victims, then who did the victimizing?

Surveys, Seligman notes, show that ever higher percentages of Americans describe themselves as victims. A steadily rising percentage of incoming college freshmen, for example, characterize themselves as having been victimized or possessing little control over their fates. For university freshmen, such views may actually be rewarded--those claiming victimhood on admission essays probably increase their odds of being accepted to college, and the more innovative the victimhood claim, the better. But for contemporary Americans to claim lack of control over their own fates is striking, since, objectively, personal freedom has never been greater. The We're-All-Victims worldview only serves to deter men and women from asserting control over their own psyches.

Seligman finds particularly counterproductive, and depression-inducing, the craze for adults asserting they were victimized by their parents. Only in extreme cases, such as sexual abuse, is there a clear link between parenting behavior and adult personality, Seligman thinks the psychological data show. "You are entitled to blame your parents for the genes they gave you but you are not entitled, by any research that I know of, to blame them for the way they treated you," Seligman says. Yet the blaming of parents has become a minor industry in the contemporary United States, inspiring talk shows and whole categories of junk-science litigation. A relevant note: Depressed patients often blame their parents for their condition, but once recovered from depression, usually stop blaming parents and describe their former claims as a crutch.

Fourth of Seligman's inventory of causes of depression is runaway consumerism. Shopping, sports cars, expensive chocolates, and the like are "shortcuts to well-being," Seligman supposes. Acquiring material things may produce a momentary feeling of gratification, but the feeling rarely lasts. Incessant purchases may be piled atop one another in the quest for the same gratification that purchases once brought--this is the basic dynamic of shopaholism--while ever higher spending actives the cycle of work-and-spend. Spending as a "shortcut" to well-being is crippling owing to debt, or by locking a person or a head of a household into the soul-draining existence of always chasing maximized income.

That runaway consumerism may be a malady in the clinical sense is suggested by the fact that it sometimes responds to medication. Recent studies have suggested that shopaholism can be treated by the antidepressant Celexa. This may sound like a postmodern practical joke--if your problem is that you spend too much money, what you need is an expensive prescription drug. But it's inarguable that runaway consumerism harms some people's well-being: They spend too much, or waste too much time shopping, or make compulsion-driven purchases of things they don't even necessarily want. Perhaps excessive consumerism is a cause of depression, or perhaps a symptom, with people shopping too much because they are depressed--metaphorically, endlessly seeking that which they do not find. In either case, if an antidepressent relieves the condition, this tells us consumerism and depression are linked. That is not good news for a society grounded in consumerism.

The question of happiness and unhappiness cannot be separated from questions of meaning and responsibility. The current philosophical fashion bellows that existence is meaningless, since we arrive by accident and are shaped by random impersonal forces. Good and evil are imaginary, or at least arbitrary. You would think that claims so contrary to human experience would merely be laughed at--plainly the philosophers have made some mistake. But no, this permeates our entire culture. If there is no other meaning, we are left with "Whoever dies with the most toys dies anyway," which is pretty depressing.

So who is happy, and why? On the whole, the elderly are happier than the young. People willing to forgive are happier. People willing to be grateful are happier. People who have a purpose are happier. People who are with other people are happier. (One reason for increased loneliness and depression undoubtedly is the smaller and more separated families these days.)

Except for growing old, none of these is automatic. It is horribly easy to feel disgruntled. It takes practice to remember to be grateful. It is easier to hang out in front of a TV than to go and do things with people. Large families require time and money. Meaning and purpose don't drop out of the blue.

Parenthetically, Easterbrook claims that if you don't believe in God, you can still devise your own purpose, which is meaningful because you chose it. Unfortunately, that approach runs straight to the meaninglessness he and I decry, because without some fundamental right and wrong your choices are literally unjustifiable, and therefore meaningless. I do not say that it is impossible to have a moral code without God (that's another subject), but that roll-your-own doesn't work.

In the last few chapters he changes the subject; first to a criticism of the ethics of senior management of US corporations (an all too-easy target, their greed and dishonesty are of mythic proportions), and then to a plea for a higher minimum wage and a dramatic increase in foreign aid (which, as he points out, can in fact be helpful: things are improving and we wouldn't be pouring money down rat holes). The connection of these final chapters to the rest of the book is a bit tenuous, unless this is his suggestion for doing something useful to get us out of our funk. He is a bit overoptimistic about the war against the Islamofacists (they've been a perennial problem in Islam) and about the power of money as aid. For example, Zimbabwe would benefit less from another shipment of our food to rot on the docks than it would from a few well-placed bullets into their high and mighty kleptocrats. (That's not exactly Christian charity, but neither is deliberate starvation of your political opponents. Moi may be a crook, but Mugabe is wicked.)

Easterbrook points out a number of things we should celebrate, and the book is worth reading for those alone. I judge that he underestimates the seriousness of the disastrous trends in our culture: hyperindividualism, numbness to violence, family disintegration rates, and so on. That we can and should do more to help our neighbors is indisputable. Figuring out what will actually help is more problematic: some of our welfare programs had serious side effects. Ditto some World Bank efforts. Go read the book.

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