- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Random House; 1 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 90 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #254,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse Hardcover – November 25, 2003
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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.
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1. Things are really good and getting better all the time.
2. Some (much fewer) things aren’t so good, and some (even fewer) things are getting worse.
3. Anyway, the good things aren’t making us happy.
Along the way, he proffers numerous possibilities for why people aren’t happy but none of them are analyzed at length. I didn’t feel any more enlightened than after reading the earlier The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement ]. In fact, I found more satisfying the few pages in How the Mind Works (pp. 389-393 “The Happiness Treadmill”, and pp. 506-9 on friendship ).
Then, for a few chapters, he presents evidence that people who forgive, have gratitude, and are spiritual are happier. So if we want to be happier, we should cultivate forgiveness, gratitude, and spirituality. Instead, he says, people are constantly looking for someone to blame or to be annoyed with. This is not just socially accepted but socially rewarded. And intellectuals tell us everything is purposeless atoms in an uncaring universe.
The last 80 pages are an argument for what the early 20th century would have called social gospel: universal health insurance, a high minimum wage, lots of foreign aid; government should regulate executive compensation. Whether you agree with these or not, they don’t have much to do with the subtitle of the book.
To be fair, Easterbrook pretty much says, “They would make me happy, and they SHOULD make you happy, too.” However, that points to another problem with the book. Though marketed as a work of social science, it is full of preaching. Much of the book is not about why “people feel worse” or better but about how the author thinks we should live.
In the last few pages, he seems to say, “Once we are not poor, nothing we do will make us happier, so we should just be good people and do good things.” Now that would be an interesting thesis to organize a book around.
After taking the reader through a tour of why people aren't satisfied with life today despite the fact that in the West now we are probably at the 99th percentile in just about every way, people still aren't happy or satisfied. Easterbrook then writes about the importance of gratitude and forgiveness, then takes us back to the problems, then to utopia.
Through all these issues, just what will bring happiness and gratitude to people, to help create a utopia? (I remember reading Thomas More's Utopia in high school--yes, we read such things then!--and feeling quite unsatisfied. When we were then assigned to write our own utopia, I discovered how hard that was.)
Easterbrook offers some solutions which should bring us happiness by taking the focus off of ourselves and helping others at the bottom of the ladder. OK, we are on the way . . .but then we stall out again. Something Easterbrook didn't mention which I think would be a good contribution to ordering our lives toward gratitude and forgiveness are the principles Catholic social (and moral) teaching. These principles help to order the human heart and society toward creation of the community (communio) we need; the promotion of the common good; respect for the dignity of life. All these principles (and more) all help create a society and world where life is worth living.
At least I have found it so.
In parts, the author does a great job looking at the 'why'. But I'd have expected this to be the whole focus.
The book also diverges into some odd areas, such as a general criticism of various CEOs who take disproportionately large salaries. I could follow at least tenuously where he was going, but it seemed to be more pushing a personal complaint about the individuals than presenting a tight and coherent case for why capitalism makes people sad.
Ultimately while I read the whole book and found some of it interesting, it didn't impress me and I felt the quality was inconsistent.