Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2004 / 27 Shevat, 5764
Why we're so miserable even though we're so well off
That could sum up "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People
Feel Worse," the new book by New Republic editor Gregg Easterbrook
(Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.).
Easterbrook recounts how we in today's West and particularly in the United
States have greater wealth, freedom, health, technological innovation and ease
of life than our great-great-grandparents could have ever imagined. Had our
forebears been able to get a glimpse of the kind of lives most of us live today,
he says, they might well have bemoaned the moral decay, but they would have
thought that in most ways it was a vision of paradise.
"Every one of our great-great-grandparents would have known someone who
died of a disease that today is shrugged at," Easterbrook notes. Or consider
that ". . . the typical person (is) now engaged in exertion (either for pay or within
the household) about half as many hours as in the nineteenth century." Not to
mention that we "enjoy goods and services in almost unlimited supply, travel
where we wish quickly and relatively cheaply. . . and wail in sorrow when
anyone dies young, for this once-routine event has become a wrenching rarity."
So, we should all be pretty happy with things, right? Well, needless to say we're
As Easterbrook recounts, "Today Americans tell pollsters that the country is going downhill; that their parents had it better, that they feel unbearably stressed out; that their children face a declining future. . ." and that was BEFORE Sept. 11, 2001.
Not only has the number of Americans who describe themselves as "happy"
not budged since the 1950s, the number of Americans who are clinically
depressed has gone up ten times. Sure, some of the increase has to do with
better identification of depression, and with reduced social stigma in reporting
it. But Easterbrook, like most experts who study depression, believe its rate has
in fact increased significantly in the last five decades.
Easterbrook is no socialist who bemoans the "material decadence" of the West
in modern times. He thinks it's much better to have the "freedom" to be
depressed than to be so busy scratching out a basic subsistence living you
can't stop to think about how you feel about things.
Still, why is it that as life gets better, we seem to feel worse about it? Martin
Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president
of the American Psychological Association, thinks there are four main reasons
why depression has risen so much.
As Easterbrook recounts Seligman's views, first there is too much emphasis
on individualism, so minor setbacks become major catastrophes. Seligman
says, "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."
Then there's the self-esteem craze. "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 now but I will later.' "
Seligman also believes that part of the problem is the "postwar teaching of
victimology and helplessness" and, finally, runaway consumerism.
And this isn't just about adults _ some 2 million prescriptions for
antidepressants were handed out to children last year.
This isn't to blame those who experience depression, a real illness that can
take a terrible toll, and which can often be treated. But significantly rising rates
of depression at least suggest there are some systemic problems in how we
as a society face our world today.
Anyway, depression is just one barometer Easterbrook examines in
determining we have some serious emotional troubles.
What to do? Easterbook's book is not a religious one, though he touches on
the importance of religion in addressing these problems. But in a worldly
sense, he points out that research is overwhelming that people who
consistently forgive others and overlook wrongs are far more likely to find
happiness than those who consider themselves victims.
Easterbrook also shows that simply being grateful for what one has, even in a
purely secular sense, is profoundly beneficial to our emotional state.
As Easterbrook says, forgiveness and gratitude require effort, bitterness does
not. He writes, "seek happiness and you may or may not find it; seek
grievances and you are guaranteed success."
Once again, of course, it turns out my mother was right.
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