Seeing Things: Happiness and Its Pursuit

We are entering the election season, when, in advanced democratic nations, candidates promising paradise engage in an elaborate mating ritual with constituents who believe they are suffering pangs just this side—and perhaps just that side—of hell. Perhaps in the long run, this drive to make everyone perfectly happy contributes something to the dynamism of a free society.

But we should not lose perspective amid the inevitable. As journalist and scholar Gregg Easterbrook reminds us in The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 2003), there is a vast difference between a realistic view of our current state and the emotional reactions, primarily over domestic discontents, that are exploited in public.

Most of what “everybody knows” about these questions is a mirage. Take the often-repeated (and in a campaign year, soon to be ad nauseam) claim that incomes for the middle class have been basically stagnant for the past few decades. Numbers are trotted out to kindle popular resentment at the obscene growth of corporate executives’ compensation while the rest of us tread water. This touches a perennial chord among Americans, who value equality. The only problem is that the picture is false.

As Easterbrook points out, much of the so-called stagnation, like most of the rate of national poverty and numbers of uninsured, has been driven by legal immigration (leave aside the illegals). In the past two decades, America has accepted more immigrants than all other nations on earth combined. When these new arrivals are factored out of the statistics, poverty has declined, incomes have steadily risen—as they did in the 1950s and 1960s—and, by virtually every economic measure, the average American is immensely better off. Not only are we earning more than ever, that wealth is shared by smaller families and spent on items that are cheaper than ever in real terms, enabling us to live in houses twice as large; own twice as many cars; dine out more often; take vacations (“leisure” services form a larger part of our GDP than oil and utility companies); buy second homes, boats, and televisions; and so forth at extraordinary rates. Most Americans today live better than most kings in the past.

There are two exceptions to these trends. The first is rising college costs, perhaps because no one has had the political guts to tackle the racket in higher education yet. Though even here, the average person’s level of education is today higher than the average for the wealthy a few generations ago. Health care is another exception, but not, for all their faults, because of greedy HMOs, drug manufacturers, or doctors. We live, on average, twice as long today as Americans did in 1900; we have sophisticated treatments available (knee replacements for welfare recipients in their 80s); and we expect first-class treatment—anywhere, anytime—as a matter of course.

Several social ills that loomed large in recent decades and seemed intractable have also turned around abruptly. Crime is way down: In Fort Apache, the Bronx, the subject of a popular 1981 film, the number of murders per year in the 1970s was about 130; in 2001, the figure was 12. During roughly the same period the number of traffic deaths per year in America fell about 10,000 or roughly 20 percent—even though the number of drivers has increased, the number of miles we drive has grown enormously, and we own more cars, almost one per adult. And despite all that driving, air quality is everywhere improved, as are all other forms of pollution, except for emission of greenhouse gases. Our progress is about a decade ahead of Europe’s, the usual rants in international forums notwithstanding. Our national mood is not disastrous either: The U.S. suicide rate is one-half of France’s.

In Easterbrook’s view, negative news receives great attention because it serves the interests of several constituencies. Elites of all stripes, for example, benefit from loose talk of “crises!’ Professors feel that their expertise is needed. Political parties portray the opposition in lurid terms requiring abrupt turns in direction. Think tanks, left and right, find scare-mongering a great help in fund-raising. And the media are, perhaps, the worst of all; across a wide range of issues, outrage and criticism are believed to help market share in an increasingly competitive environment.

For Easterbrook, we face few “crises” but many problems. And the track record in the last century or so is that prudent, practical attempts to deal with problems have proven to be quite successful. This is true even outside prosperous nations. Contrary to the predictions of the soft socialist international and the environmental alarmists, even the developing world is, well, developing. There are still many destitute people in the world, but markets, decent government, foreign aid, the agricultural Green Revolution, and other factors have reduced the percentage of people living in dire circumstances, even as populations have risen.

So politics aside, by what “paradox” do we not feel better in countries such as the United States? On this point, Easterbrook has some interesting things to say, beginning with the ancient truth that things do not make us happy. Somehow along with the materialist abundance, we have grown more distant from one another. Today, 13 percent of Americans describe themselves as lonely; 50 years ago only 3 percent felt that way. This maybe one reason why the incidence of depression has grown by a factor of ten.

But certainly another factor in our lack of happiness is another ancient truth: Achieving happiness is hard. One of Easterbrook’s original contributions here is to explore some recent studies of how gratitude, forgiveness, and optimism contribute to happiness. He rightly says, “Expressing gratitude or appreciation does not come easily to us because we practice it so little.” Partly, this has to do with a toxic intellectual and cultural current that prefers complaint and gloom. EasteRbrook knows that virtues such as gratitude and forgiveness are not easy and that grumbling and grudges usually offer a sure thing. But he still underestimates just how difficult achieving such virtues may be.

Most of the world’s religions preach humility, detachment, freedom from lust and greed, anger and envy, and subsequent joy. Easterbrook points to scientific research that confirms these views but, appealing to popular moods, suggests in one chapter “selfish reasons to become a better person.” A little humor helps here, but a deeper wisdom has always maintained that if we make happiness just one more possession, we may lose that as well. Climbing the steps to happiness probably only succeeds when we engage in it for some other purpose we think right in itself.

If there is one deep flaw in this otherwise entertaining—indeed, eye-opening—tour of our current horizon, it is this self-defeating crypto-Pelagianism. Easterbrook writes as a confessed Protestant but asserts at several points that whether we believe in a God or merely in a philosophical approach to life, it’s basically the same. We find meaning by trying to be better people, and in this the believer is no more advantaged than the rationalist. But there has been plenty of research showing that believers are healthier, happier, and more basically fulfilled than others in America.

Now, this may be owing to a natural phenomenon: Philosophers are few and good philosophers rare. Believers, of course, exist in abundance in all walks of life. In sophisticated circles, they are often dismissed as “fat, dumb, and happy.” But as Easterbrook notes, believers in the United States are better educated than the average, probably no fatter, and are committed to the very values he thinks help overcome exhausting materialism.

Splitting the difference with non-believers may be a useful tool in the argument ad gentes. But it might be worth investigating, and giving just due, to those specifically religious effects, even if they slightly offend against our nonjudgmental etiquette.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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