How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.
For the first 80 pages, Easterbrook hammers home how much better life keeps getting. Each cynic wants to deny it, searching for exceptions in education or international relations, but the list is impressive, and its supporting evidence powerful.
From 1900 to now, life expectancy almost double; percentage in upper-middle class or above went from 1% to 23%. Almost half of all men worked in primary labor – forestry, farming, and half of all wage-earning women worked as domestic servants – not even what we would call blue collar these days -- but now over 50% of each is white-collar.
Since 1950, houses twice as big for families half the size, and 70% own their dwelling. Life expectancy up 35%. Percentage of folks in war zones, down 80% worldwide.
Crime is down, disease is down, IQ’s are up (yeah, really) and education is better (yeah really). Divorce is down, teenage pregnancy down, drug use down. For those who find this impossible to believe there is a short answer: retrospective memory is inaccurate.
There is a different but related list over at No Oil For Pacifists
And yet – clinical depression is way up; anxiety disorders are up; people’s subject sense of well-being is slightly down, people’s hopefulness for the future is down.
Easterbrook suggests a dozen reasons, including unrealistic expectations; lack of sleep and exercise, less community contact, greater awareness of problems everywhere, the preference of intellectual elites for bad news and hopelessness, catalog-induced anxiety, and perceived want. He recommends the new “positive psychology:” cultivating forgiveness and gratitude and the other parts of hazzin’ a good attitude. OK, fine. The book starts to weaken here, and dribbles out altogether at the end, as he repeats his favorite complaints against SUV’s, health insurance insecurity, and the free market’s creation of losers. (He acknowledges, BTW, that market economies have created all the good things above, but keeps thinking there should be something, well, better. Great. Wake me when you find it, Gregg.)
All this we knew at some dim level. This next part is new. Easterbrook believes that stress and anxiety are the default positions for the human personality. The people who worried about the fire going out and listened for war drums over the hill survived; those who stopped to appreciate sunsets got eaten by something. We think relaxation should be our default mode, and when problems go away we should just naturally relax. Probably not. More typical is that we transfer our worry and stress to the next-largest problem. Relaxation has to be cultivated and learned for most of us.