Sunday, January 22, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox

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.


Anonymous said...

Easterbrook is partially right, in that it is a truism that misery rises to the level of the means available to alleviate it.

But why does misery now seem to be surpassing our abundant means to alleviate it?

Because the mind itself is the problem. As I wrote in my book, it is a serious problem to which humans must adapt, no different than adapting to the external world.

People may actually have been happier in the past, for the simple reason that they had no time to dwell in their minds. Plus, the external world was so dangerous and precarious that mind parasites could easily be projected outward, into the external world. People experienced the world as dangerous instead of their own minds.

We especially see this phenomenon with the left. Now that life is so great and there is so little to be disturbed about, they are more disturbed than ever, just as if the world is as bad as it was 50, or 100, or 1000 years ago. In their case, the paranoid projection is especially palpable. It's like an empty canvass that they splatter with their mind parasites. That's how I read dailykos or huffingtonpost.

Jerub-Baal said...

Not to bicker, but I would contend that 'clinical depression is way up; anxiety disorders are way up;' and 'people's hopefulness for the future is down,' are inaccurate statements.

The majority of evidence for these issues historically comes from the literature and records of the upper classes. There really were very few things published like "How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis which is why such books on the poor had so much impact at the time. As a thought-experiment, consider the children who grew up working in the textile mills of Lowell. Did they grow up with a greater hope for the future than we? Now that would make for a sappy '60s Disney movie ("Pollyanna and the Spindle Machine")! Victorian England was regularly scolded from the editorial pages about Demon Gin, precisely because of the real and terrible effect of alcoholism on the lower classes, much like Russia and Vodka today.

I write this as someone who will most likely be in treatment for clinical depression for the rest of my life...well, I am an artist, since I am also conservative, happily married and loving my kids I had to choose some other part of the stereotype. I think back on my family history, and it is likely that depression at least visited upon those in previous generations at several times that I can remember, and these are memories of people I knew in my childhood and teen years.

The basic fact is, it is almost trendy now for men to be treated for depression. Things that even only a generation ago would be thought of as eccentricities ("he's just an odd duck, give him space when he gets like this") are now given acronyms and treated with Remeron or Paxil.

As you pointed out, key things that lead to depression, divorce, teen pregnancy (and hence its repercussions), drug use are down (and I'd guess alcoholism as well), and people are living longer on average, which means that fewer people who grow into adulthood are doing so by outliving their siblings.

The amount of depression and anxiety disorders has not gone up. Reporting of it has.

My opinion, for what it's worth.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I suspect that is an important counterbalance to Easterbrook's thesis. Things are physically better in a hundred ways, yet we are depressed. It is easy to conclude that because there is still some depression, it must be no better, and perhaps is even worse than past ages. That is indeed assuming too quickly.

The book does go into some data of people's self-report of their general optimism, which does seem to be decreasing. But because we have only even asked such questions in the last few decades, our sample is limited.