December 2003

Gregg Easterbrook

The revenge of the credit card
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Why money doesn’t make us happy An editor for The New Republic and The Atlantic, Gregg Easterbrook is known as a keen observer of modern culture. So it’s not surprising that he noticed a baffling quality in contemporary Americans despite our material wealth and relative well-being, a lot of us don’t feel content. In his new book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, Easterbrook reveals that many people think the world is going downhill despite the fact that most objective measurements show the quality of life improving dramatically throughout the Western world. Living in a time of unequaled prosperity, able to afford ever more extravagant material goods, we think our parents had it better than we do. Why the discrepancy? BookPage asked Easterbrook to explain why so many people seem to see the glass as half-empty, rather than half-full.

A key point in your book is that money definitely cannot buy happiness. So why is it that we Americans are still obsessed with it? Everyone needs a certain amount of money. Beyond that, we pursue money because we know how to obtain it. We don’t necessarily know how to obtain happiness.

Should we really expect to “be happy”? Isn’t that a self-indulgent goal? Aristotle called happiness “the highest good.” The Framers of American democracy advocated “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Neither Aristotle nor the Framers were known for self-indulgence. All believed that happiness is a legitimate goal in life; perhaps, one of the reasons we are here. Does the 24-hour news cycle the constant reporting of crises make people worry more than they should about the world at large? There are many horrible problems and injustices that we really should worry about. But by showing us live coverage of every bad thing happening everywhere in the world, cable news makes life seem like it’s just an endless string of disasters when, for most people in most places today, life is fairly good.

You report that Americans have far more leisure time today than they did a century ago. If that’s true, why do many of us feel stressed and overloaded? “Leisure” time as researchers define it means the time when you are not being compelled to perform labor: paid labor, household labor or government-enforced participation in some activity. By that standard, we have far more leisure today than our grandparents did. Simultaneously, the rushing-around quotient of life keeps rising. If we have fewer hours under formal compulsion, but more hours rushing from here to there (or stuck in traffic attempting to rush), we can be stressed-out regardless of time trends.

It’s hard to be happy with a Honda Accord if your neighbor has a new BMW. On the other hand, isn’t there a positive side to keeping up with the Joneses in a free-market society? Doesn’t envy induce us to work harder? Seeing the BMW may make you feel unhappy, but, psychological studies show, obtaining the BMW would not make you happy! Envy and dissatisfaction come from lacking what others possess, but coming into possession of those things does not confer happiness. How many times have you bought something thinking it would make you happy, and found it does not? I call this “the revenge of the credit card.” Why is it important that we count our blessings? Count your blessings for selfish reasons! Psychological studies show that people who are aware of their blessings and feel grateful for them even if there are many problems in their lives, as well live longer than non-grateful people, have fewer medical problems such as hypertension, earn more and achieve longer marriages. (Length of marriage correlates with happiness in life.) Your books says “it is standard to denounce materialism in others while lusting for it ourselves.” How about it have you been able to quell your own lust for “more stuff”? At this point I’m so sick of electronics that I want less of them! My wife, three kids and I live in a large comfortable house in a county with excellent public schools. If I did not have that, I would yearn for it intensely. Otherwise, I feel content in material terms. I actually drive a Honda Accord, and would not exchange it for a BMW.

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