May 02, 2004

Book Review: "The Progress Paradox" by Gregg Easterbrook

by Jeremy Blachman

The subtitle of "The Progress Paradox" does a great job summing up what the book is about: "How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse." And to sum up my review: the first half of the book is quite thought-provoking and excellent, but the second half for some reason let me down. Read more for my poorly-articulated explanation for what I mean. :)

Basically, the book's about how life for people in the Western World has never been better -- people are healthier and live longer than ever before, have more leisure time, an abundance of food and consumer goods, luxuries people a few generations ago could never have dreamed of -- yet we're not any happier. The book is littered with conversation-droppers, little facts that percolate in your head and end up finding an appropriate place in all sorts of discussions -- two that I've found myself using just in the day or so since I finished the book:

(1) people complain about having to spend money on health care, but what better thing could we be spending money on than living longer, healthier lives -- Easterbrook argues we should be glad that we can spend such a substantial fraction of our income on something as important and rewarding as health care; (2) society as a whole is well-off enough that even people at the lower end of the income scale live lives that are much closer to how the rich live than ever before in history -- they have cars, and cable TV, and a place to live, and enough food -- the differences are much more marginal than in the past -- life expectancy for the poor is not substantially lower than for the rich -- heck, one of the biggest problems is that poor people are overweight. Poor people in generations past simply could not afford enough food that they could ever be overweight. Crime is down, jobs are less labor-intensive than in generations past, people have more leisure time, education is more obtainable, etc, etc, etc. The vast majority of people live in something approaching The American Dream.

But trend-lines say we're no happier than we used to be. And that beyond an income of $11,000/year, more money really doesn't seem to buy more happiness. Depression rates are rising. Self-reported happiness surveys report happiness down. Easterbrook spends a while arguing that part of it is that people don't feel like the next generation will be any better -- that we already have so much how can quality of life continue to rise. That argument doesn't ring true to me as much as his other big one, that for most of humanity we've had to worry about necessities like food and shelter, and now that most of our necessities are taken care of, we worry about wants -- and there are always more things to want, and more things that other people have, that we can never get fully satisfied. And the wants disappoint when we get them, so we're never really happy. His third (related) argument is that for the first time people aren't worried about the necessities and now have time to ponder the meaning of life and worry about fulfillment -- and that's harder to satisfy than food on the table will satisfy hunger.

This was all very interesting to read, because it's the kind of stuff I sometimes ponder and he's pondered it in a more organized and better-researched way than I ever have, obviously, so I found this compelling. But then the last half of the book seems to lose its nerve and its ambition. Easterbrook argues we should all sleep more, be more forgiving, and keep a "gratitude journal," and that as a society if we raised prices a little bit we could pretty much eradicate the problem of world impoverishment and that we have a duty to give more aid to poor countries. I don't disagree with any of that, but it's not as bold and insightful as the first half of the book got me revved up for. I sleep a lot, and I'm pretty grateful, I think -- but I still wrestle with questions about how to really feel like I'm living a life that matters and wake up each morning content and happy and fulfilled. The book didn't get me any closer. It didn't help explain why it seems like so many people don't admit these concerns and go on living lives that seem shallow and unrewarding. It pretended we all care about this stuff, and I'm not sure we all do. And the foreign aid stuff is great -- but it's not prescriptive toward individual lives so much -- I could give $30 a month to Save The Children, but beyond that there isn't a ton I can do to effect governmental policy (although I guess if everyone read his book and lobbied for higher sales taxes...). CEOs get paid too much, sure. We don't need three TVs per person, sure. But this wasn't what the book built up in its excellent first half to leave me hoping for in the less-excellent second half. I can't recommend the first 187 pages of this book any more than I do. Read them. They're fascinating, thought-provoking, and really excellent. But the next 150 didn't do it for me. I don't know. I don't know what I was waiting for, but it didn't hit me hard enough. I can't help but think there's a different second half of this book on Gregg Easterbrook's hard drive, and his editors wanted a different story. But read the book. It's mostly quite fantastic.

May 2, 2004 11:32 AM | TrackBack

Great review Jeremy, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Looks like an interesting book.

Posted by: Unlearned Hand at May 2, 2004 01:53 PM

Shouldnt you be studying instead of reading books?? :)

Posted by: Iysam @1 at May 2, 2004 01:54 PM

"In the same way that even a felled tree will grow again if its root is strong and undamaged, so if latent desire has not been rooted out, then suffering shoots up again and again."

"People beset by desire run here and there, like a snared rabbit, and those trapped in the bonds of attachments keep returning for a long time to suffering."

"Those on fire with desire follow the stream of their desires, like a spider follows the strands of its self-made web. Breaking the bond, the wise walk on free from longing, and leaving all suffering behind."

It sounds like part of the book was a summation of the Dhammapada, or an illustration of that realization. (Specifically the section on Craving). I have read so many books like these that fall shy of their goal because they are trying to provide some sort of a coherent intersection between a quest for understanding(a spiritual need) and practical ways to act to assuage that need through action. They fall shy because they try to suggest solutions, when sometimes the solution is simply understanding.

I am always a bit dubious of claims that anyone can really realistically measure a trend in "happiness" because what happiness is changes over time. I am sure if you asked someone 300 years ago to describe what a happy life is, that description would be entirely different from what a person today would say a happy life is. Not only that, but I would guess that on average, a person 300 years ago would probably say that their life was about as close to that happy life as a person today would. Relative happiness is inherently tied to expectations and the role model provided for a happy life, and I can't see that it would change all that drastically. One thing that comes to mind is that while the standard of living is positively correlated to happiness, its not nearly the only influencing factor in happiness, and maybe not even the most important...

Of course, I will withold any substantive judgement on the book until I get a chance to get my hands on it and read it, but the big questions I would have are: 1) What is the measure of happiness? 2) Over what period of time has this measure been used? 3) Since happiness is hard to define, and self reported happiness is not a terribly reliable indicator (its an indicator influenced by changing expectations), what are the author's assumptions about what makes a life happy, and how have those assumptions biased what he writes.

I will definitely give it a read though, its always interesting to read varied perspectives on what makes us happy and why we aren't happier.

Posted by: Chris at May 3, 2004 01:49 PM

Mr. Easterbrook's book is quite interesting. I recently incorporated a great deal of the work into one of my last undergraduate papers. It was required reading for my "Virtue" class. What struck me was that Easterbrook has no real way to escape the paradox in which we have become entrenched. He never finds a way rhetorically or practically to escape purely self-interested individualism and the nought that creates. If I coul dmake one recommendation it would be to read this in coordination with at least two other books. Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style and Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos. Optional: Augustine's Confessions or Pascal's Pensees. This, truly, would seem to be the primary dilemma of the postmodern age.

Posted by: John at May 3, 2004 04:23 PM

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll check those books out once exams are a fond memory. :)

Posted by: Jeremy at May 3, 2004 05:05 PM

Barry Schwartz's "The Paradox of Choice" also presents an interesting concept. As we are given more choices, whether small decisions at the grocer or huge decisions such as what career we want to pursue, we are less satisfied with our eventual choice. Often, we're also paralyzed by the presentation of more choices. It's an interesting concept that fits in with Easterbrook's Progress Paradox.

A word of caution, though. I didn't fully enjoy Schwartz's book for reasons similar to those you presented with Easterbrook. I got the feeling Schwartz wanted to write a great psychology book and the publisher nixed it...and the result was self-help meets serious academic work.

Posted by: Greg at May 3, 2004 08:40 PM

Schwartz's book is in my Amazon easy-to-keep-track-of-library-call-numbers list, uh, I mean wish list. :)

Posted by: Jeremy at May 3, 2004 10:20 PM

Ah, similar to my "books I don't have time for" wishlist.

Posted by: Greg at May 4, 2004 01:24 PM

even people at the lower end of the income scale live lives that are much closer to how the rich live than ever before in history -- they have cars, and cable TV, and a place to live, and enough food -- the differences are much more marginal than in the past -- life expectancy for the poor is not substantially lower than for the rich -- heck, one of the biggest problems is that poor people are overweight.

Really? I doubt the entire thesis, but this is not the first place where I have seen the comment about "poor people are overweight" as if there were such an extravagance of food that even our poor are fat.

The poor are fat because they can sometimes afford McDonald's but never Chez Minceur, because salt pork, ham hock and darkmeat chicken cost a lot less than an organic vegetable pate flavored with truffles, and because they haven't been educated to get their protein from beans. This is just a short list. It is quite possible to be both fat and malnourished.

Posted by: Handy Fuse at May 4, 2004 05:14 PM
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