Book Summary: “The Progress Paradox” by Gregg Easterbrook


Title: The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
Author Gregg Easterbrook
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Easterbrook makes the case that life is getting better in virtually every way, but these changes are not necessarily producing greater happiness for each person. He then explains what people can do to feel happier.

My Comments

While I disagree with Easterbrook on whether material progress leads to happiness (further research after his book was published shows a clear positive relationship), this book gives an excellent overview of material progress and how individuals can teach themselves to experience greater happiness.

Key Take-aways

  • Western nations have achieved a level of wealth that is unrivaled in world history. Even the poor are much better off than the wealthy in past generations.
  • But this prosperity does not automatically translate into happiness because humans have many psychological instincts that keep us from appreciating this prosperity.
  • Many people use their money to isolate themselves in bigger homes with fewer people, but being around people makes us happier.
  • Learning to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what we have helps us to become happier. Understanding that our current progress was created by our ancestors can help us learn to feel gratitude.
  • Optimists tend to be happier and more successful than pessimists, but our media and politics make us more pessimistic. You can train yourself to be optimistic.
  • Forgiveness of perceived injustices also make people happier, though our politics teaches us to do the opposite.
  • Getting married and staying married also promote happiness, though the modern trend has been for marriage rates to decline.

Important Quotes from Book

“Suppose your great-great-grandparents, who lived four generations ago, materialized in the United States of the present day.”

“as your ancestors four generations removed learned more of contemporary life, they would be dazzled.”

“Many other aspects of contemporary life, taken for granted by those of us who live it, would dazzle our recent ancestors. ”

“Many other aspects of present-day life would strike our recent ancestors as nearly miraculous.”

“Today we live a long time, in fairly comfortable circumstances; enjoy goods and services in almost unlimited supply; travel where we wish quickly and relatively cheaply; talk to anyone in the world; know everything there is to know; think and say what we please; marry for love, and have sex with whomever will agree; and wail in sorrow when anyone dies young, for this once-routine event has become a wrenching rarity. All told, except for the clamor and speed of society, and for trends in popular music, your great-great-grandparents might say the contemporary United States is the realization of utopia.”

“Yet how many of us feel positive about our moment, or even believe that life is getting better? Today Americans tell pollsters that the country is going downhill; that their parents had it better; that they feel unbearably stressed out; that their children face a declining future”

“The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not budged since the 1950s, though the typical person’s real income more than doubled through that period. Happiness has not increased in Japan or Western Europe in the past half-century, ”

“Far from feeling better about their lives, many are feeling worse. ”

“The book you are about to read will address topics including:

  • The ways in which contemporary American and European life grows steadily better, with nearly every trend line positive.
  • The actions, from government policy to individual choices, that have caused nearly every trend line to become positive.
  • Why huge numbers of people do not appreciate the fact that Western life grows steadily better, or even deny this is happening.
  • Why the prosperous, free, and basically decent societies of the United States and Western Europe produce so many citizens who are unhappy.
  • Why rapid progress against “unsolvable” problems, such as pollution and crime, should give us hope that “unsolvable” problems of the present, such as global warming and developing world suffering, can be overcome.
  • Why even overcoming every problem that exists might not make us any happier.

In addition, this book will propose a few theories intended to explain the contemporary overlap of sanguine social circumstances and personal unhappiness. They will include:

  • That several important new apprehensions have arisen to replace old ones.
    • One is “choice anxiety,” the transition from people being so constrained by social forces that they felt trapped to the current situation of having so many options that choice itself becomes a source of anguish.
    • Another is “abundance denial,” in which millions of women and men construct elaborate mental rationales for considering themselves materially deprived, and in so doing only succeed in causing their life experiences to be unhappy.
    • Another is “collapse anxiety,” a widespread feeling that the prosperity of the United States and the European Union cannot really be enjoyed because the Western lifestyle may crash owing to economic breakdown, environmental damage, resource exhaustion, terrorism, population growth, or some other imposed calamity.”
    • “♦Another is the “revolution of satisfied expectations,” the uneasy feeling that accompanies actually receiving the things that you dreamed of.
  • That society is undergoing a fundamental shift from “material want” to “meaning want,” with ever larger numbers of people reasonably secure in terms of living standards, but feeling they lack significance in their lives… This is a conundrum, as meaning is much more difficult to acquire than material possessions.
  • That ultimately we should be glad society is creating the leisure and prosperity that allows people by the millions to feel depressed, for it’s better to be prosperous, free, and unhappy than other possibilities.
  • That new psychological research, which seeks to explain why some are happy and others not, suggests it is in your self-interest to be forgiving, grateful, and optimistic—that these presumptively altruistic qualities are actually essential to personal well-being.”

“ Americans are steadily better off, and while the rich are richer, the bulk of the gains in living standards—the gains that really matter—have occurred below the plateau of wealth. Almost every person in the United States and the European Union today lives better than did his or her parents.”

“In 1890, less than 1 percent of American households earned the equivalent of $75,000 in today’s dollars; now nearly a quarter of households are at that favored point.”

“What about the middle? Inflation-adjusted per-capita American income has more than doubled since 1960, meaning that the typical person now commands twice the buying power of his father or mother in the year 1960. ”

“Of important goods and services, only health care and college education now cost more in work-hours terms than they did in the 1950s.”

“As Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out, the period of slow growth in median income coincides with the second great wave of immigration into the United States. Through the 1980s and 1990s, America accepted more than a million legal immigrants annually—for each of the last twenty years, the United States has accepted more legal immigrants than all other nations of the world combined, along with a huge influx of illegals.”

“Factor out immigration, and the rise in American inequality disappears; median-income trends become quite healthy. Among the 89 percent of the American population that is native-born, inequality is declining, not increasing—a trend driven in no small part by the rising incomes of African Americans,”

“Also missing from standard complaining about middle-American income is that the typical American household is shrinking. ”

“While today’s typical roof shelters 2.6 people, a quarter-century ago the median household held four. This means today’s mildly higher typical household income is spread over fewer household members. The result is an effective income gain of about 50 percent in real-dollar terms for middle-class households in the past quarter century.”

“Two generations ago in the United States, most families lacked a car; by our parents’ generation, most families had one car while the two-car lifestyle was a much-sought ideal; today a third of America’s families own three cars or more”

“Averaging out homes and apartments, today the typical American place of dwelling has 5.3 rooms for its average of 2.6 people. This means that a longstanding metric of comfortable living, “a room of one’s own,” has been gone one better; on average, Americans of today have two rooms of their own. (Most European nations still have slightly fewer dwelling rooms than people, meaning the typical person in Europe does not quite yet have a room of his or her own.) U.S. housing stock took almost two centuries, from the founding of the nation until the early postwar period, to reach the level of an average of one room per person.”

“In 1900, the largest share of men, 42 percent, were involved in “primary labor”—mining, forestry, fishing, and farming—and the next-largest share in factory work. All these forms of toil were backbreaking, dangerous, and low-paying. In 1900, the largest share of wage-earning women, 47 percent, labored as domestic servants, work that was arduous, demeaning, and paid even less.”

“the typical person now earns his or her living without physical toil… “numbers among the most impressive social accomplishments in human history.”

“in 1880, between longer work days and the greater time required for routine activities such as shopping or short-distance travel, the typical American adult male spent just eleven hours per week engaged in activities that could be called relaxation. Today, he estimates, the typical adult male has forty hours per week available for relaxation. Fogel further reckons that even with the increase in women’s wage-earning, the typical American woman now has about thirty more hours per week available for leisure than in 1880.”

“This means leisure, once an exclusive province of the elite class, now is increasingly available to almost everyone”

“The sum of the social changes detailed above is that, today, the rich and the typical do not live in fundamentally different ways.”

“Invitations to exclusive parties, flying on corporate jets, hiring expensive escorts for sex, meeting privately with politicians: There are still a few primary experiences that the rich have and the average person does not. But by the standards of history, these are nothing compared to previous chasms in food, shelter, health care, and education.”

“For at least a century, Western life has been dominated by a revolution of rising expectations: Each generation expected more than its antecedent. Now most Americans and Europeans already have what they need, ”

“Please don’t be alarmed, but almost everything about American and European life is getting better for almost everyone.”

“In the main, the overwhelming majority of trends in the United States and Western Europe are strongly favorable, while the majority of trends for most of the rest of the world, including for most developing nations, are at least mildly favorable.”

“for most people in most developing nations, life is mostly getting better. According to the United Nations, in 1975 the average income in developing nations was $2,125 per capita stated in current dollars; today it is $4,000.68 In 1975, 1.6 billion people lived at what the United Nations classifies as “medium development,” meaning with reasonably decent living standards, education, and health care. Today 3.5 billion people do—a stunning increase in the sheer number of human beings who are not destitute. Democracy is rising throughout the developing world. Global adult literacy was 47 percent in 1970 and is 73 percent today, while school enrollment for girls has skyrocketed.”

“Diverse explanations aside, there is one bright thread laced through all the examples of favorable trends: an indication that it’s never too late to change the world. Intractable or “impossible” dilemmas can be improved. ”

“Virtually every issue viewed as insoluble when his statement was made—pollution, race relations, welfare dependency, the Cold War—has improved markedly if not disappeared altogether.”

“Yet if the Western world has known a Golden Age, it is right here, right now.”

“If most things are getting better for most people, why don’t Americans behave as though they believe this? ”

“the men and women at middle-class standards or above in the United States and the European Union now live better than 99.4 percent of the human beings who have ever existed.”

“Today supermarkets offer at low cost dozens of items almost everyone who has ever lived considered unattainable delicacies and died without tasting”

“Consider a thought experiment. If the means existed, would you exchange places with a typical person living in any year before your birth?”

“A good guess is that hardly anyone in the United States or the European Union today would accept a one-way ticket to the everyday life of the past. ”

“The fundamental reason so many Western citizens don’t seem pleased with their lot, or even to believe their lives are mainly favored, is the discontinuity between prosperity and happiness.”

“First is the unsettled character of progress. We’d like to think progress causes problems to be solved in a final sense, and sometimes that happens.”

“But often as not, problems exist in a chain of cause and effect: For each problem solved, a new one crops up”

“Solving one problem often creates another; the new problem is noted and fretted about while the original, being solved, is forgotten. Call this the “tyranny of the small picture.” Instead of the big picture we often see the small picture, aware only of the lesser negative within the greater positive”

“Other factors color our aversion to believing that most things are getting better. One is an active preference for bad news.”

“Next is a preference for bad news on the part of elites… To much of the elite ethos, if things are bad then the privileged may float above events feeling superior and asserting that they knew it all along.”

“Lesson: Claims of disastrous decline will be praised in the elite parts of society. Since many crave recognition or rewards from elites, people oblige by producing claims of disastrous decline.”

“To those who benefit from bad news, either by fund-raising or increased self-importance, problems are not just problems but crises—the health care crisis, the farm-bill crisis, the tax crisis, the welfare crisis, the litigation crisis, the postage-rate crisis… 99 percent of the issues facing the Western world are not crises. But in contemporary public discourse, everything is a crisis”

“News organizations adore the word “crisis” and use it as often as possible. News-organization internal incentives toward negativism are the next reason many are convinced life is getting worse rather than better.”

“Small risks may be perfectly real, and there is no reason society should not try to eliminate them or care about conditions that affect only small numbers of people. Obsession with small risks may itself be a positive sign, telling us that the number of substantial risks is declining, freeing up resources to focus on lesser worries. Obsession with smaller risks may also be seen as a propitious phenomenon of prosperity: Today we have the knowledge necessary to detect small risks, the leisure in which to notice them, and the wherewithal to act against them. But everyone misses the larger-picture point about the press trend toward reporting smaller and smaller risks: that big risks are in decline. Instead of realizing this, we feel under siege from ever rising tides of very small dangers. Overall, the pessimism-promoting effect of the modern media might be called “headline-amplified anxiety.”

“Beyond these are factors of human nature itself. One is the possibility that evolution has conditioned us to believe the worst.”

“The constant anxiety our ancestors must have felt about predators in the distance may now be transferred to aspects of life that aren’t dangerous. Complaining may be a defensive mechanism to prevent complacency, but one whose side effect is making it hard to appreciate the moment.

Similarly, it might be said that the human condition is characterized by “complaint proficiency.”

“we practice complaining so much, and on such minor issues, that we become too proficient: And then complain more, if only because we are confident we are good at it. Expressing gratitude or appreciation does not come easily to us because we practice it so little.

Next, it seems almost a matter of human nature that most people reject the idea they are prosperous. Surveys show that the majority of Americans think only the rich are “well-off,” despite the fact that most Americans live quite well compared to more than 99 percent of the human beings who have ever existed. One reason Americans and Europeans deny they are well-off is that this connotes being the beneficiary of favoritism,”

“Finally, there is in many people’s behavior an element of what might be called “complaint yearning.” In some ways we may want a situation to be perceived as bad, because this takes certain kinds of pressure off us. ”

“Because there will always be something you don’t have, the ever greater profusion of goods for sale in the Western world tends to place many people in a blurred state of perpetual restlessness regarding possessions. Stuff becomes desired for the brief pleasurable moment of the acquisition… The distinction between needs and wants is lost.”

“Once focused on wants our thoughts can never be at peace, because wants can never be satisfied; not even a billionaire will ever have everything. Wants, by definition, are impossible to satisfy, though you may placate them now and then.”

“Americans, and increasingly Europeans and the Japanese, eat too much, shop too much, own too much, covet too much, watch too much television, spend too much of their precious lives in too-large cars. These are failings of the Western system, but shortcomings rather than fatal flaws. Better people have too much rather than too little; better they be spoiled than deprived. Though the Western system falls far short of ideal, no rational individual would choose the lot of the average person in the developing world, the Arab nations, China, or the former Soviet republics over the average person’s circumstances in the West.”

“For now let’s put aside these meta-problems of sweeping theory and concentrate on the foremost fault of the Western system in everyday life. That fault is that the incredible rise in living standards for the majority of Americans and Western Europeans has made them more affluent, healthier, more comfortable, more free, and sovereign over ever taller piles of stuff—but has not made them any happier.”

“The trend line for happiness has been flat for fifty years. The trend line is negative for the number of people who consider themselves “very happy,” that percentage gradually declining since the 1940s. And the trend line would cascade downward like water over a falls on the topic of avoiding depression. ”

“Happiness, in turn, is a worthwhile and important goal. To be happy is not an exercise in self-indulgence, rather, one of the primary objectives of life. ”

“Nearly all well-being research supports the basic conclusion that money and material things are only weakly associated with leading a good life.”

“Sociologists have long assumed that rising income does not necessarily confer rising happiness owing to “reference anxiety,” a fancy term for keeping up with the Joneses. As incomes rise, people stop thinking, “Does my house meet my needs?” and instead, “Is my house nicer than the neighbor’s?” Contemporary psychology tends to view this traditional assumption as not quite right; Veenhoven, for example, believes many people have become aware of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses pitfall. Instead, current research suggests that it is the trends in a person’s own life, not in the neighbors’ lives, that induce dissatisfaction even when times are good.”

“Here, research suggests, the essential element is an expectation of more.”

“Thus belief about whether the future will be better may prevent us from appreciating that the present is good, an effect that might be called “anticipation-induced anxiety.” Despite the clichéd complaint that men and women are shallow and live for the moment, psychology shows that if anything, tens of millions of Americans and Europeans live too much for the future and ignore the moment. Kahneman’s work suggests that many people are obsessed with whether the years to come will be better or worse, to the point of overlooking that things are nice right now. Parents and schools teach the concept of delayed gratification, of always looking ahead while keeping the nose to the grindstone. Many people learn this lesson so well that they can only look ahead, growing excessively concerned about future improvement. ”

“A fundamental reason that acquiring money does not sync with acquiring happiness might be stated in cool economic terms: Most of what people really want in life—love, friendship, respect, family, standing, fun—is not priced and does not pass through the market. If something isn’t priced you can’t buy it, so possessing money may not help much.”

“Research by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, and by others, has shown that human beings are happiest around other people”

“Steadily smaller households, made possible by prosperity, mean steadily less human interaction.”

“Americans and Western Europeans have ever longer lives in which to enjoy achievements and possessions, while losing the sense of closeness to others that helps make it all worthwhile. This might be called the “nice hotel room factor.” For increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans, life is like being in a really nice hotel room, but not having a good time because no one else came along on the trip.”

“This dynamic alone may constitute half the reason why the Western nations may be steadily better off but no happier. ”

“We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones,” pronounced Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, his magnificent treatise on the new science known as evolutionary psychology.

Natural selection, this new science supposes, might have favored early humans who were uneasy, distrustful, inclined to assume the worst about life and one another.”

“ Studies show that successful or high-income people tend to have more cortisol pumping through their system than others… “it’s fair to speculate that those stressed out men and women who rise to the top are in some fashion aided by stress. (Studies also show that the obsessive-compulsive tend to be more successful than society as a whole, suggesting natural selection may have favored this condition as well.) So stress can be good—but still unpleasant. Research further shows that highly successful Type-A people, the ones most likely to suffer stress symptoms, are twice as likely as the population at large to describe themselves as “very unhappy.”

“In a society where most things are basically good for most people, stress triggers may be lowered to ever more delicate settings. Americans and Europeans today get upset, and complain bitterly, about slights or setbacks so tiny our forebears would not even have noticed them.”

“And yet, somehow, most people turn out okay. Only a tiny fraction of the populace commits antisocial acts, develops a psychosis, or loses the ability to function in society. People may fail to become happy but few fall to pieces. Considering modern stress, most of our heads are in surprisingly good condition.

This is the fundamental insight of an emerging field called positive psychology, which seeks to change the focus of study of the mind from figuring out what causes psychosis to figuring out what causes sanity. Traditionally, “researchers have tended to study the things that can go wrong in people’s minds, but not the things that can go right,”

“Eventually the name “good life” movement was dropped because it connoted champagne and dancing till dawn. Positive psychology became the label, and here are some of its findings:

One is that attaining happiness is hard work… achieving a positive attitude toward life requires considerable effort: People may slip into unhappiness simply because it is the path of least resistance.”

“Positive psychology also contends that you are better off being an optimist than a pessimist. Lisa Aspinwall, a psychologist at the University of Utah, has shown that as a group the optimistic do better in life than the pessimistic, as measured by longevity, earnings, marriage duration, and other indicators.8 This does not mean become a Pollyanna; optimists, Aspinwall finds, are actually better than pessimists in overcoming negative experiences, because they can bounce back rather than be dragged under.”

“Optimists, positive psychology finds, are not trying to dodge or deny the many objectionable aspects of life. Rather, they are employing mental strategies that help overcome the bad and improve the situation. In this thinking, it is in your self-interest to be optimistic.

Optimism can be instilled, partly by training yourself to think positively.”

“Trying to think positively is common sense, if for no other reason than you can be sure that thinking negatively will accomplish nothing. One reason for the Western depression epidemic may be that contemporary society, awash in media and intellectual negativism, has lost track of the common-sense guidance that an optimistic outlook usually improves your prospects. ”

“For the long term, what does positive psychology tell us about how to reorder our lives? Here are two important points of advice: We should be more grateful, and more forgiving. Religion and folk wisdom have long held these feelings to be meritorious. New research suggests gratitude and forgiveness are in our self-interest.”

“That being forgiving is good for you, in addition to the person you forgive, is among the most compelling findings of positive psychology. Research now suggests that those who take a forgiving attitude toward others not only make better friends, neighbors, and coworkers—anyone would guess that—but are themselves happier, healthier people who live longer than others and know more success in life. ”

“Similarly, positive psychology finds that people who take a grateful attitude toward life, counting their blessings rather than inventorying their complaints, tend to be healthier, happier, and more successful than others. Again it appears to be the sense of gratitude that causes the happiness and health, rather than the other way around.”

“Most larger social forces are essentially beyond the typical person’s control… Each person can, however, decide for himself or herself what kind of view about life to take. Cultural, media, and social institutions now urge us to take the negative view. Psychological research is beginning to show that taking the positive view is in our self-interest.”

“Marriage isn’t right for everyone and some people become trapped in bad or abusive marriages; but, overall, those who wed and stay together are consistently better-off as a group than those who do not marry, or who separate.”

“Staying married is one of the success secrets of the well-off.”

“Though most people in the United States and the European Union have far more in material terms than their forebears just a few generations back, how many of us pause to reflect on how favored we are by history? ”

“To be grateful does not mean to take a naÏve view of the world. Emmons notes that, in studies, people who score highly on various indicators of gratefulness also report strong awareness of the bad in their own lives and in society… But the grateful person may achieve the ability to be aware of life’s drawbacks and yet thankful to be alive, an attractive combination of views.”

“If gratitude has value, why aren’t men and women today more aware of this? One reason, the psychologist Emmons thinks, is modern emphasis on the self; we don’t want to think about our indebtedness to others, whether those alive now or those who came before us. The decline of intellectual respect for faith seems another factor. For at least a generation, serious thinkers have looked down on the idea of gratitude toward God as a rote church doctrine; ”

“Finally there is the question of whether we have a duty to feel grateful. Hundreds of generations who came before us lived dire, short lives, in deprivation or hunger, in ignorance or under oppression or during war, and did so partly motivated by the dream that someday there would be men and women who lived long lives in liberty with plenty to eat and without fear of an approaching storm.”

“For all the myriad problems of modern society, we now live in the world our forebears would have wished for us—in many ways, a better place than they dared imagine. For us not to feel grateful is treacherous selfishness.”

“Failing to feel grateful to those who came before is such a corrosive notion, it must account at some level for part of our bad feelings about the present. The solution—a rebirth of thankfulness—is in our self-interest.”

“The reason that the problems of the present—such as developing-world destitution, greenhouse gases, or poverty amidst American plenty—seem “unsolvable” today is simply that we have not yet begun the work of solving them. ”

  1. “Factfulness: Why Things are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling
  2. “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” by Bailey and Tupy
  3. “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker
  4. “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” by Matt Ridley
  5. “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future” by Johan Norberg
  6. “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress In a Networked Age” by Steven Johnson
  7. “Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think” by Diamandis and Kotler
  8. “More From Less” by Andrew McAfee

If you would like to learn more about Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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