Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
Is the American dream dead?
Despite years of rising prosperity, cases of depression have exploded, and the average American is only "slightly satisfied," says author Gregg Easterbrook in "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" (Random House, $24.95, 376 pages).
Since 1960, the percentage of the population calling themselves "very happy" has declined from 7.5 percent to 6 percent today.
Easterbrook notes that logically speaking, Americans should be happier - after all, income is up, deadly diseases are down and the average American thinks nothing of jetting around the country.
While previous generations dreamed of a chicken in every pot, now we're striving for an SUV - or two - in every garage.
So how to explain the fact that depression in Western nations is 10 times more common today than it was 40 years ago? Or that those on the Forbes 400 list of the world's richest people feel "only a tad bit more life satisfaction" than the average Joe?
"If you sat down with a pencil and graph paper to chart the trends of American and European life since the end of World War II, you'd do a lot of drawing that was pointed up," writes Easterbrook.
"But your graphs would lose their skyward direction when the topics turned to the inner self - the trend line for happiness has been flat for 50 years."
For a long time, social scientists have focused on "reference anxiety" - that stressful striving to keep up with the Joneses - to explain the disparity.
No longer. "Current research suggests that it is the trends in a person's own life ... that induce dissatisfaction, even when times are good," Easterbrook writes. "The essential element is an expectation of more."
Competing with yourself, Easterbrook notes, is lonely.
He cites research by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, which argues that, sure, we're making more money, but we're often lonelier doing so - either because we've pulled up roots to get where we are, losing track of friends and family along the way, or perhaps because we're telecommuting.
He compares modern life to finding yourself in a lovely hotel room - and not enjoying yourself because "no one else came along on the trip."
Fifty years ago, 3 percent of Americans referred to themselves as lonely. Today, 13 percent do.
On top of the loneliness, what Seligman calls the "self-esteem craze" has made us feel there's something wrong with us if we don't feel good about ourselves all the time.
"Self-esteem emphasis has made millions think there's something fundamentally wrong if you don't feel good, as opposed to just, 'I don't feel good right now, but I will later,'" Seligman says.
Another factor that gets some of the blame is the American obsession with victimization. One study of college freshmen shows an increasing percentage describe themselves as not in control of their fate.
Which begs the question: "If we're all victims, then who did the victimizing?"
And when we all shop 'til we drop - and pay people to reorganize our closets to make room for all the new stuff we buy - it does nothing to make us feel better.
There's such "a never-ending progression of new things to want ... that no one could keep up with it even if money were no object," says Easterbrook.
We even have a name for people who indulge in such rampant, mindless consumerism: shopaholics. They're treatable, Easterbrook notes, with the antidepressant Celexa, according to recent studies.
"If an antidepressant relieves the condition, this tells us consumerism and depression are linked," he writes.
"That is not good news for a society grounded in consumerism."
Meanwhile, unipolar depression seems to be keeping pace with inflation - and then some.
"The United States and European Union generate wealth to spoil their citizens with depression," Easterbrook writes. "Huge numbers of people in these places can, in terms of money, afford to feel badly."
Just how badly we can afford to feel depends on a number of things, marital status and age among them.
Statistics show that married people tend to be happier than those who are separated or divorced.
More surprising is Easterbrook's finding that elderly people, the disabled and even the chronically ill are happier with their lot than the young and restless - who tend to lack perspective and not appreciate just how good they have it, since they've known nothing but prosperity.
Other countries seem better equipped at handling their new-found prosperity. Easterbrook quotes a study citing the Netherlands, Iceland, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden as the world's happiest countries - perhaps, he speculates, because nearly everyone in Scandinavia is middle-class and has the same things (or, as he puts it, in American terms: a three-bedroom house and a Honda Accord).
And while Ireland's per-capita income is less than half our own, it has what Easterbrook calls a "count your blessings" culture.
Japan, on the other hand, is facing tougher times after unbridled progress and prosperity - which may be why the Japanese surveyed described themselves as "abjectly miserable."
One wonders where New Yorkers would rate on the happiness scale.
Easterbrook - who lives in Bethesda, Md., and drives a Honda Accord - said last week that "a lot of what's exciting about Manhattan is its department store windows and extravagant shops of things you find hardly anywhere else in the world.
"But the psychological research clearly shows that the wonderful things for sale in the stores will not make anyone happier," he continues.
"Poverty makes you miserable, but once you have the basics, the ability to buy fancy things or go to the theater has nothing to do with whether you're happy or not."
Indeed, one study cited in the book argues that happiness drops off in diminishing returns after one makes more than $10,000.
"Go into the most expensive restaurant in New York, and you may not see all that many smiling faces," Easterbrook says.
Move to a better address, his books says, and it "may only serve to instill an insidious new form of dissatisfaction ... you are immediately confronted by all kinds of pricey stuff that even the well-off have trouble affording."
The answer, he says, is to build on happiness from within.
"Psychological research shows that people who are grateful, forgiving and optimistic are much more likely to be happy than those who aren't," Easterbrook says.
A higher minimum wage and universal health care wouldn't hurt either, he contends, though that's bound to raise prices, making it harder to afford, say, that SUV.
Then again, if what Easterbrook says is true, having one would only drive you to despair.
Copyright 2003 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.