Miserable in the Midst of Plenty

Have you ever thought about what life was like for your great-grandparents? If you really have, you'd agree with Gregg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution that our great-grandparents would consider the world we live in today to be some kind of utopia. Yet, all of the progress we enjoy hasn't made Americans any happier. In fact, the opposite is true -- it's made us more unhappy. In his new book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, Easterbrook begins by telling us just how good we have it: The average Westerner lives better than 99.4 percent of all the human beings who have ever lived. For instance, life expectancy has nearly doubled in the past century and continues to increase. Real per-capita income has doubled since 1960. But even that understates the rise in income, since the price of food and many durable goods keeps falling. Our standard of living has risen to levels our great-grandparents couldn't have imagined. In the period following World War II, the average new American home was 1,100 square feet; today it's 2,300. For most of our history, the average home had one room for every two people; today there are two rooms for every one person. By any measure of affluence -- health care, leisure, technology -- the average American enjoys a quality of life beyond anyone's wildest dreams even a few decades ago. We have more of everything except, of course, happiness. The percentage of Americans who characterize themselves as "happy" hasn't changed since the 1950s, and the percentage of those describing themselves as "very happy" is down and continues to decline. During the same period, the percentage of Americans and Europeans who suffer a bout of depression has climbed to 25 percent and shows no signs of abating. An estimated 7 percent of all Americans suffer at least one incidence of major, debilitating depression a year. For some people, depression is the product of genetic and other biological factors. But for many others, being depressed in the midst of unprecedented prosperity can be traced to spiritual, cultural, and moral factors. For the former, medical treatment is indicated. For the latter, what's needed is a change in worldview. And a good place to start is a sense of gratitude. As Easterbrook tells us, the Roman orator Cicero called gratitude not only the "greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others." Similarly, the philosopher Immanuel Kant called ingratitude the "essence of vileness." Knowing that we are better off than nearly every other human who has ever lived should inspire, as it does with Easterbrook, a daily prayer of thanksgiving, not a sense of dread. And it should prompt us to generosity, rather than a desire for more. For that to happen, of course, we must first overcome the cultural factors that contribute to our dread and unease. I'll tell you about these over the next few days. Be sure to keep reading. While there are certainly reasons to worry about the direction of American life, there is also so much to be thankful for, and Christians should be able to distinguish one from the other.
For Further Reading and Information
Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003). Call 1-877-322-5527 to order ($25). "State of the World 2004: The Consumer Society," Worldwatch Institute, January 2004.


Chuck Colson



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