Friday, February 15, 2008

Book Review: The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse is not an easy read. The first several chapters nearly suffocate under page after page of statistics, poll results, and findings by researchers and other academic heavyweights. However, if the reader sticks with the book long enough, it proves itself to be a fascinating and thought-provoking study of how quality of life has continued to trend upwards, while personal happiness continues to decline.

The author’s investigation of how quality of life continues to improve is decidedly heavy, and is by far the most difficult and overwhelming part of the book. It’s fairly academic and dry. People who suffer from insomnia could try these first few chapters as non-pharmaceutical sleeping aids. Nevertheless, Easterbrook eventually shows how key areas in quality of life — including income, medical care, and housing — have all improved in the last several decades. He includes many examples of how people, especially in the Western world, by and large live with comforts previous generations could only dream of, and how these luxuries are taken for granted.

To his credit, Easterbrook does acknowledge that some trends are troubling: many in the world still live below the poverty line, and there has been an increase in obesity, especially among children, in the United States. The author is also clearly concerned with unchecked, excessive wealth. He rails against the appalling greedy practices of corporate CEOs while millions across the world still suffer from malnutrition, high rates of disease, and short life spans.

Easterbrook then turns to a sometimes-rambling discussion regarding the possible reasons personal happiness has not increased in step with an improved quality of life. The usual suspects are mentioned: genetics (people might be evolutionarily conditioned to focus on the negative); accumulation of material goods (having carpeted steps for your doggie might not make you any happier); popular entertainment (watching reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger won’t fill the void in your life); and SUVs (driving an armored tank across America’s highways and byways might not shield you from feeling miserable).

Cynics could of course argue that Easterbrook doesn’t say anything more than the accepted and tired cliché that “money doesn’t buy happiness.” Nevertheless, this middle section is by far the most engaging and interesting element of the book.

A few flaws emerge in Easterbrook’s discussion of why happiness has not increased. First, he never really establishes a working definition of “happiness.” For some people, happiness might mean a beautiful house and a beautiful wife; for others it might mean a high-paying job, copious amounts of booze or drugs, season tickets on the 50-yard line, or bizarre and strange sexual practices.

Second, he only marginally acknowledges that relying on polls to gauge trends in human happiness is inherently problematic; someone polled one day as being “happy” could have a different outlook on another day, or hell, five minutes after being asked the questions the first time. Easterbrook also sometimes comes across as a dry intellectual by focusing on poll numbers a bit too much. He tends to de-emphasize the impact that daily events (loss of job, birth of child, filing of restraining order) have on a person’s outlook on life in favor of broader and impersonal categories.

Easterbrook’s book ends with ideas of how people can possibly increase happiness in their lives through simple steps like forgiving others, reducing stress, reading more and watching television less, and realizing material possessions cannot ensure happiness. Sure it’s perhaps borderline motivational speaker and somewhat sappy, but he makes his case and doesn’t get overly dogmatic or preachy.

Easterbrook shows that as long as people rely on material possessions to make them happy, it’s likely that this unhappiness will continue or increase. This isn’t to say that Easterbrook is against free trade; however, it’s clear he thinks the race to acquire more and more will not lead to happiness.

This book isn’t perfect. Cute catch phrases like “reference anxiety” are used too often and have very little actual meaning outside of a college political science course. There are a few rants that should have been excised, and the initial chapters are repetitive. Easterbrook sometimes tends to get a little starry-eyed in addressing ways to solve the world’s problems, chief among them global poverty.

The Progress Paradox makes a compelling case that people will likely continue to become increasingly unhappy and discontent if their focus remains a bigger house, a better car, and other material possessions. Easterbrook manages to make his case without sounding like either a Luddite or a total reactionary.

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