Author Gregg Easterbrook talks about the ideas in his latest book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. How has life changed in America over the last century? Is the average person getting ahead or are the rich taking all the gains? Easterbrook argues that life is better for the average American in almost every dimension. The paradox is that despite those gains, we don't seem much happier.
Is the average person sharing in the increased prosperity in America? What is the evidence? Living standards have been rising since the end of WWII. Housing size, television, cars, education, longevity up. Crime, pollution, discrimination, disease rates down. Divorce rate, drinking, unwed births. Recessions still occur but are shallower. Since 1991 recession, unemployment low, inflation low, productivity keeps rising. "We are now in our twelfth year of what would have been considered full employment in the '60s and '70s."
Middle class income growth is low, but stall is at highest level ever. Immigration affects measurement of middle-class income, insurance rates, school test scores, but doesn't mean existing citizens' experiences in those categories have deteriorated. Pessimists cherry-pick data to paint a gloomy picture without considering demographics. Health care, knee replacement example.
Transition over last 100 years. One hundred years ago living conditions were dramatically worse. Freedoms, education were much lower. Quote from p. 82 on living conditions in the first decade of the 20th century. We selectively romanticize life in the old days, but daily life was much harder than today.
How was book received? "Good news scares people or makes them angry." Reporters, politicians institutionally prefer scandal and claims of doomsday to evidence of progress. Optimism seems to imply to some that there's nothing left to do. Establishment press reviews sneered at book as Pollyana-ism, but everyone else has loved it.
Why aren't we happier? That's the paradox. Psychological data indicate that, despite all these increases in the standard of living, percentage of Americans who describe themselves as happy has not increased. But what is being measured? What do we mean by "happiness"? Is what people say about their happiness different from their behavior? Daniel Kahneman: order of questions matters. Evolutionary psychology: likely that we are descended from a discontent of the past. Maybe humans are predisposed to complaining. Stress, anxiety, cortisol. Belief in meaninglessness (reduced religiously or ethically based sense of purpose), college education. Larry Iannaccone. Is number of people who believe life has meaning in decline? How does Europeans' happiness compare to Americans'? Ireland, Japan, France, Germany, Scandinavia; honesty.
Maybe unhappiness may be default human condition simply because it's easier to obtain than happiness! Materialism is an easy goal. Much harder to contemplate how to get develop a philosophy of life than to shop! Is discontent actually good for society because it generates productivity? Christmastime spending illustrates confusion: the economy is what those who live in it want it to be. Shorter hours may be what people want; byproduct would be lower measured income. Edward Prescott, European tax policies.
Why are people pessimistic? Even educated guesses routinely underestimate improvement in last 100 years. Drumbeat of negativity may affect people's perceptions. Abundance denial: How much money is needed to "live well"? Answer is always twice as much as they earn, regardless of how much they earn. Ability to dream and plan for future unique to humans. PBS reality shows, "Frontier House," Victorian House, etc. What can I do to improve my sense of well-being? New field of Positive Psychology points to gratitude, forgiveness, and optimism as actually making people happier.