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The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse Hardcover – November 25, 2003

3.8 out of 5 stars 97 customer reviews

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Ordinary middle-class Americans have often tried to assuage their jealousy of the rich by repeating the axiom "money can't buy happiness" to themselves. But according to New Republic senior editor Gregg Easterbrook, "the rich" are, in fact, those same ordinary middle-class Americans and no, they're not happy at all. Wages have soared over the past fifty years and regular citizens own large homes, new cars, and luxuries aplenty. Better still, the environment, with a few exceptions, is getting cleaner, crime is on the decline, and diseases are being wiped out as life span increases. So why do people report a sense that things are getting steadily worse and that catastrophe is imminent? Easterbrook presents a few psychological rationales, including "choice anxiety," where the vastness of society's options is a burden, and "abundance denial," where people somehow manage to convince themselves that they are deprived of material comforts. The sooner we accept how good we have it, the better off the whole world will be, he says, because if we would just realize that we have this wealth, we could be using it to alleviate hunger, provide health care for the millions who lack it, and otherwise address the ills that actually do exist. While at times the book's attempts to make the world a better place seem a bit of a stretch, it's admirable that Easterbrook is willing to make that stretch and not suggest people simply light up cigars and bask in their newly discovered joys. One might look a bit askance at some of Easterbrook's sunny perspectives on our societal fortunes--he celebrates rampant consumerism while skating past the rampant consumer debt that lies beneath it, for instance--but it's hard to deny that the pessimistic viewpoint is much more widely stated than that of optimists. Is the glass really half empty or should we, as Easterbrook indicates, enjoy the wonderful world in which we secretly live? --John Moe

From Publishers Weekly

Easterbrook sees a widespread case of cognitive dissonance in the West: according to Easterbrook, though the typical American's real income has doubled in the past 50 years, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "happy" remains where it was half a century ago (oddly, Easterbrook doesn't tell us what that percentage is). Why do so many of us remain discontented, he asks? Is it because now that even the middle classes can afford nearly every conceivable luxury, we have nothing left to look forward to? Easterbrook, a senior editor at the New Republic and contributing editor to the Atlantic, believes so. He also castigates modern psychology and the media for dwelling on minor problems without celebrating the broader, more upbeat context in which they exist. But his endless nagging about how Americans and Western Europeans should be more grateful for their standard of living leads him to overcompensate: for instance, he minimizes the harm done to Wal-Mart employees who were forced to work "off the clock" hours without pay because, after all, they're still living better than their ancestors, since stores like Wal-Mart sell necessities at such affordable prices. The book does confront some serious problems, like the health-care crisis, but suggests that they can be licked as effectively as we've fixed environmental, racial and other seemingly intractable problems. Sarcastic patter and a flair for catchphrases like "abundance denial" and "wealth porn," however, barely disguise a padded thesis and one easily argued against with an alternative set of statistics.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (November 25, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679463038
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679463030
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (97 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,552,986 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in Buffalo, New York, to parents who were naturalized Canadians. I'm a graduate of Colorado College and a lover of the Rocky Mountains region throughout North America. Because my wife was until recently as U.S. foreign service officer, I've lived in countries including Pakistan and Belgium. I wish there was still a little family-owned patisserie in walking distance from my house like there was in Brussels. My character flaw is that I watch too much football.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Two chapters into this book, I thought, "wow, everyone should read this!" Two chapters further, I wondered if the publisher had accidentally mixed pages from another book into my copy.
The premise of "The Progress Paradox" is that all the gloom and doom forecasters are not only currently wrong, but have been wrong for generations. By every measurable standard, things are getting better, not just for Americans in general, but for the world at large. There is more prosperity, less hunger, a better environment, etc.
The introduction, chapter one, and chapter two are true to this theme. They outline in remarkable detail exactly how our lives are better than those of our forebearers and what kind of work our ancestors had to do to make oure lives better. In chapter 3, Easterbrook outlines reasons why Americans fail to believe the proof before their eyes.
But in chapter 4, he starts a high handed moral lecture. After telling the reader things are better, we should be more grateful for what we have, and we should learn to appriciate life, more, he then attacks the reader for not doing anything about poverty in America, for not insuring all American citizens, and for allowing hunger to exist in the world. Now, if Easterbrook had any suggestions, even ridiculous ones, this would not be so bad, but he goes from telling the reader "everything is better than you think it is" to telling the reader, "no! I lied! Everything IS going to hell in a handbasket and it's ALL YOUR FAULT!"
This does not sell his initial message.
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Format: Hardcover
Progress has become the Pandora's Box of today; we live longer, eat better, have more things but are essentially unhappy. Our perception is that just as these great advances creep out of the box, so do their equally nasty counterparts. Easterbrook's new book confronts the disconnect between prosperity and happiness with many statistics, observations and conclusions. The major flaw in Easterbrook's book is the reach for the easy answer or starry eyed optimism about our ability to completely solve problems. Pessimism exists for a reason just as optimism does; they balance each other out like some bizarre ying and yang helping to provide meaning in our brief lives.
On the whole, though Easterbrook's observations and comments are powerful and on the mark; we live in an age of enlightenment only to deny our ability to enjoy the outcome of progress. Easterbrook is most successful when taking a deep look at our inability to enjoy what we've worked so hard for but also his arguments for examining the pessisism and darkness that we've allowed to cloud our lives. While we live in a cynical world dotted with irony and sarcasm, we've allowed these very qualities which are useful in measured degrees to infect every aspect of our lives. While it may be fashionable to be all of these things to a large degree, it's also eroded our perception on the quality of our life. We no longer believe that good things happen to us without a price. We no longer believe that there's actually goodness in the world that can keep our darker nature at bay. These beliefs are essential for providing some sense of balance. If we believe the sky is always falling, then the vitality of our everyday lives is stolen from us.
In effect, we've allowed the darkness to suck all the fun out of our lives.
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Comment 52 of 59 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Progress Paradox is not a perfect book. It can be repetitive at times, and Easterbrook can sound a bit preachy when discussing certain topics. Despite these small flaws the book is highly readable, often very enjoyable, and serves an important purpose. Easterbrook is an excellent writer and stays reliably non-partisan despite the politically charged nature of some of the topics he covers, making The Progress Paradox far more credible than the many left- or right-wing tomes currently clogging bookstore shelves.

There are essentially three parts to The Progress Paradox. In the first part Easterbrook makes the case that life is indeed getting better. Through countless examples, some of which are truly stunning, Easterbrook methodically shows that in virtually every measurable way our lives are not just better, but significantly better, than they were a generation or two ago. This applies not only to personal indicators such as health, wealth, and leisure time, but also to larger geopolitical trends such as the spread of democracy.

In the book's second act Easterbrook explains why, despite the overwhelming number of positive indicators, people tend to feel like things are getting worse. Easterbrook examines a multitude of causes ranging from simple biology to the media's obsession with bad news. Politicians, in particular, are demonstrated to have a vested interest in making sure that Americans think things are not going well.

In the final portion of the book Easterbrook attempts to strike an upbeat note, giving the reader a host of reasons to believe the future is going to be even better than the present.
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