Happiness and Health in a Prosperous Society

Published April 1, 2004

The Progress Paradox : How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
by Gregg Easterbrook
($24.95, 376 pages, Random House Publishers, 2003, ISBN: 0679463038)

Between the media’s emphasis on crises and grievances, and the fears engendered by 9/11, it is common to hear that things are going to hell, that our parents had it better. But objectively, almost everyone in today’s United States or European Union lives better than his or her parents did.

Nevertheless, studies show the percentage of the population that is happy has not increased in 50 years, while depression and stress have become more prevalent. Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox explores why ever-improving living standards don’t seem to make us any happier. Detailing the emerging science of “positive psychology,” which seeks to understand what causes a person’s sense of well-being, Easterbrook offers an alternative to our culture of crisis and complaint.

Our Genetic Predispositions

Easterbrook explains, using the language of the nature versus nurture debate, the origins of humankind’s least-desirable traits, including lack of appreciation, vanity, and conspicuous consumption. These traits, among others, make us bear much of the blame for the fact that while life by any measure has gotten considerably better over the last 50 years, the percentage of people who consider themselves happy has not risen a single percentage point over the 50 percent figure tallied in 1950.

From buying watches, washing machines, houses, and cars for the primary purpose of burning money and keeping up with the Joneses [which Easterbrook refers to as “call and raise the Joneses”], he recounts the absurdity of so much we do–from our personal paper shredders (“must not let our important paper fall into the hands of a shrewd trash collector”) to devices that alert us to incoming calls while we are surfing the Web.

On a more serious note, Easterbrook expresses our ignorance toward the destructiveness of excess weight. “Today an estimated 280,000 Americans die prematurely of obesity and its complications each year; the second-worst preventable cause of death after lung cancer from smoking, and dozens of times more than the worst-case fatalities toll from environmental exposure to toxins and similar issues over which Americans obsess. … Today citizens of the United States live in a society that lionizes the one person in a thousand who can run a marathon but otherwise seems devoted to eliminating physical activity altogether.”

Stress and Health

The Progress Paradox summarizes the outpouring of medical studies on the impact of stress on today’s human condition. The evidence for stress creating a long list of serious disorders is clear and incontrovertible, but he is also confident it has led to a massive exaggeration of illness because of the ease offered in laying the blame for any personal problem at the feet of a medical disability.

Easterbrook makes a strong case for what many of us believe–namely, that while children with Attention Deficit Disorder can benefit greatly from Ritalin, and adults who are clinically depressed can benefit from Prozac, the overuse of these drugs is masking … and indeed, likely causing … many other problems.

With significant medical support Easterbrook lays part of the blame for public malaise, even in the face of the good life we now live, on the facts that we grow steadily overweight, sleeping fewer hours and less soundly, producing ever-more cortisol, the stress-inducing chemical in our bodies. It is likely we would experience less stress and anxiety if we ate less, did a half-hour of exercise every day, and read a book before bed instead of watching television. But, he writes, and most will agree, “this requires a change of lifestyle, while most people want an Rx instead.”

At the same time, Easterbrook recognizes the frivolity of thinking we can ever return to a much less stressful way of life. We will never get away from the technology that stresses us, he notes, because it becomes ever safer and more benign. He makes it clear that left-leaning anti-technology “greens” are losing out when he points out that despite endless money anxiety, hassles and hurry, constant noise, crowding, and demands on our time, somehow, most people turn out okay. People may fail to become happy, he says, but few fall to pieces. Considering modern stress, most of us are in surprisingly good condition.

The Promise of Positive Psychology

Easterbrook is a student of psychology and accounts himself well in detailing how Freud’s now-discredited ideas led us on a long, wrong path of negativism. Concurrently he applauds the potential of today’s “positive psychology movement,” whose groundwork was laid by Abraham Maslow in the 1970s.

While the final third of The Progress Paradox hammers away at the evidence most people in western society are not happy regardless of their excellent circumstances, Easterbrook never ceases to point out reasons and methods to lift us toward a more optimistic view of life. He leans heavily on the still-strong teachings of Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking and its many excellent imitators.

He also has in hand the myriad statistics that show regardless of failed marriages, your chances of health and happiness escalate in marriage as opposed to being single. Likewise he deals well with the literature of forgiveness, whether it be morally or spiritually taught. The psychological proof of the important contribution forgiveness makes to mental health is beyond debate. And he goes further, calling for a little more appreciation and outright thankfulness to those who went before us. He writes,

“Suffering through privation, those who came before us accumulated the knowledge that makes our lives favored; fought the battles that made our lives free; physically built much of what we rely on for our prosperity; and, most important, shaped the ideals of liberty. For all the myriad problems of modern society, we now live in the world our forebears would have wished for us–in many ways, a better place then they dared imagine. For us not to feel grateful is treacherous selfishness.

“Failing to feel grateful to those who came before is such a corrosive notion, it must account at some level for part of our bad feelings about the present. The solution–a rebirth of thankfulness–is in our self interest.”

Easterbrook exhibits considerable balance in his absorbing discussions of political philosophy. He states clearly that capitalism is the best thus far, but he hopes for a better system yet to come. Until that day arrives, he writes, “Researching this book, and thinking about the alternatives, has caused me to begin whispering a regular prayer of thanks. Thank you that I and five hundred million others are well-housed, well-supplied, over-fed, free and not content; because we might be starving, wretched, locked under tyranny, and equally not content.”

Ever the optimist, Easterbrook concludes his powerful treatise with a detailed history of the Islamic world and why he firmly believes we can defuse the war on terrorism and help the Moslem nations develop the free societies they deserve.


Easterbrook makes a compelling case that optimism, gratitude, and acts of forgiveness not only make modern life more fulfilling but are actually in our self-interest.

This is an important book, easily one of the 10 most important I’ve read in the past 20 years. Lest any of my readers think I exaggerate and am leading them to a let-down, you should know that the second time I read the book, I liked it even better. Buy this book, read it, and pass it on to a friend. It could actually make a difference.

Jay H. Lehr, Ph.D. is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].