Imagine that 50 years from now the average American family will have an income of $140,000 a year (in 2005 dollars). Suppose further that, in 2055, average life expectancy will have reached 85, and the typical 50-year-old will look and feel like a 35-year-old does today.
In such a society, most of what we now call poverty will no longer exist, and people will live significantly longer, healthier, more affluent, and safer lives than they do today.
Is this some utopian fantasy? Far from it: it merely assumes that the America of 50 years from now will stand in the same relation to the nation today as contemporary America stands in relation to the country as it was in 1955.
Americans today are on average twice as rich, and far healthier, more youthful, and safer than our predecessors were a half century ago. And, as Gregg Easterbrook points out in his recent book “The Progress Paradox,” there’s every reason to assume that such markers of social well-being will continue to improve. In other words, what is conventionally thought of as the American dream – that you will be better off than your parents, and that your children will in turn be better off than yourself – seems to keep coming true.
There’s just one little problem with this rosy scenario: The paradox Easterbrook’s title refers to is the fact that all this “progress” doesn’t seem to have made Americans any happier.
As measured by ongoing social science surveys, Americans are no happier now than they were 50 years ago and indeed the percentage of people who describe themselves as “very unhappy” has risen by about 20 percent. By some estimates, rates of depression are 10 times higher than they were in the 1950s.
Does this mean there’s no relationship between money and happiness? Not quite: As Easterbrook emphasizes, poor people are consistently less happy than the non-poor. But this effect is very limited: Once people reach a fairly modest level of middle class affluence the relationship between wealth and happiness disappears. In the United States, people who make $400,000 or even $4,000,000 a year are not measurably happier than people who make $40,000.
The implications of this finding, which is a very consistent one in economic and psychological research, are rather startling. For one thing, it suggests that the American dream is based on a fundamentally mistaken view of life.
Our society is organized around the premise that ever-increasing levels of health, wealth, and liberty will produce ever-increasing levels of personal happiness and fulfillment. It’s an eminently plausible theory, but it turns out to be wrong.
Seen from any reasonable historical perspective, contemporary America would appear to be, for the solid majority of its citizens, something close to utopia: a land of vast riches, immense personal freedom, and long and healthy lives. So why are we, if anything, less content with our lives than our ancestors?
Easterbrook offers a number of suggestions, many of which come back to the idea that various social forces have transformed us into a nation of whiners. While there’s certainly something to that, another one of Easterbrook’s suggestions is more intriguing.
“Acquiring possessions,” he points out, “is a simpler challenge than acquiring meaning. As Western society moves from material want to meaning want, we must always be aware that acquiring meaning is harder to come by than a car or house.”
When people lack enough to eat or decent shelter, then the answer to the question of what our political system should be trying to accomplish is simple. When the question becomes, why do people with 56-inch plasma televisions end up taking Prozac, that’s a paradox worth pondering.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)