Our increasingly material world has led to a culture of discontent and depression, says Gregg Easterbrook
The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
By Gregg Easterbrook
Random House, 376 pp., $24.95
Throughout his clearly written, thought-provoking book, Gregg Easterbrook summons a broad range of social scientists as witnesses. He gives us facts and figures galore to remind us how very well our nation is doing as the richest and strongest on the earth. Pages of good, telling reportage remind the reader of how fortunate we Americans have become with respect to our standard of living. The past (as Freud well knew) tells us about the present, gives it perspective; and so too with our social existence as well as our personal interests or problems. ''The great story has been the rise in well-being for the typical person," we are informed, and then the factual warrant for such an assertion: ''To take one basic but oft-overlooked change, today almost 70 percent of Americans own their places of dwelling, versus less than 20 percent a century ago, when most Americans were tenants."
So much of the unparalleled good is ours, yet the financial and medical enhancement of our collective being has not meant that we as individuals truly regard ourselves as better off -- indeed, we are presented with studies that point in quite the opposite direction. In an echo of David Riesman's book of the 1950s, ''The Lonely Crowd," we are told that ''the same forces that are causing standards of living to rise and longevity to improve also promote loneliness." Even more serious trouble seems afoot. The author quotes research that indicates a ''tenfold increase in unipolar depression in the industrial nations during the postwar era [which] surely qualifies as an epidemic, if a silent one." So it goes -- a rising tide of paradoxes; we buy and buy, get and get, own and own -- yet tell interviewers, pollsters, ambulatory observers who want to know about our various attitudes, including our self-absorbed state of mind, that we feel down in the dumps, amid possessions that only a few decades ago seemed beyond any possibility of realization for us.
Such a disparity between ownership and personal well-being (hopefulness, self-respect) is not new to our times. In both the Old and New Testaments, believers are warned strenuously of a spiritual danger: that they might acquire and acquire (the whole world) yet lose their souls -- a biblical line of moral thinking that got worked into the writing of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and other 19th-century novelists, including our own William Dean Howells, whose ''The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885) told of the mixed blessing that success can turn out to be. An American writer was alert a century ago to the hazards this contemporary book emphasizes; indeed, only when Silas experiences various losses does his heroic nature become evident: a knowing storyteller delivers a message to a nation itself then on the rise -- there are opportunities aplenty, but moral dangers as well. Theodore Dreiser, in ''The Financier" (1912) and ''The Titan" (1914), and Sinclair Lewis, in ''Babbitt" (1922), also pursued the same ethical quandary, as did others. Easterbrook cites in a note ''the heart-rending Willa Cather short story 'Paul's Case,' in which a man who has lived in near-poverty all his life embezzles from a bank, enjoys unlimited luxury for one week, and then commits suicide, feeling there is no point in living a life of longing for what others have." The intense yearning for the positions and assorted paraphernalia that others have gotten for themselves fuels our economy, of course -- as Thorstein Veblen, a contemporary of Cather's, knew to tell us in his ''The Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899), wherein the words ''conspicuous consumption" appeared, an early description of what Easterbrook keeps putting on the record: our sometimes frantic desire to show others what we proudly have acquired. We display endlessly our purchasing capability, and thereby presumably our minds assert our self-worth.
Progress back then, progress now, has its advocates, its critics -- the former, hopeful dreamers, the latter, alarmed skeptics. Our era's ups and downs (economic and cultural both) prompt Easterbrook to partake of both angles of vision, interpretation. He sees us ''doing right well," as it is put so often in our Southern states; he portrays an idealistic and tenuously determined people, not without errors, flaws of outlook and action, but ever searching for meaning and purpose in this time allotted us. He sees us on a search for values, as we plug and plod along; and he hopes we won't forget that side of things -- become smugly successful and indifferent to the spiritual challenges posed by our economic and political achievements, our historical significance. At times his writing connects with that of two others: a Danish theologian and social observer, Kierkegaard, who took sharp moral aim at 19th-century Copenhagen's comfortable but self-preoccupied bourgeoisie; and our own 20th-century novelist and philosophical essayist Walker Percy, who mused long and hard about the irony that goes with having everything except a sense of purpose -- of life's meaning. ''Happiness must come from within, and money cannot buy it," we're told, aphoristically at the end -- a kindly moralist speaking to himself, to all of us, the here-and-now members of a mighty, yet vulnerable, America.
Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist who works at DoubleTake magazine.