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Issue No. 85 (March 15, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

From material want to happiness-, purpose-, and meaning-want

Time for a new political discourse!

The Congressional campaign of 2006 is already, for all practical purposes, underway, and so far the discourse is at least as simplistic, at least as venomous, and at least as one-down (“We're Hurting, Hurting, Hurting!”) as it’s ever been.

Contributing mightily to this frantic whining is George Lakoff’s widely discussed tract Don’t Think of An Elephant!, which urges Democrats to concede nothing to The Enemy (i.e., Republicans) -- see our review HERE. And the latest generation of “radical” activists seems determined to learn nothing from its parents’ over-the-top theorizing and behavior, if the new anthology Letters from Young Activists is as representative as it claims.

Fortunately, a new note is being struck by a variety of activists and public policy analysts.

They are not saying that the world doesn’t need changing! (Others can be counted on to say that.) What they ARE saying, though, is that it’s inaccurate -- and ultimately self-defeating -- for politicians and social change agents to claim (as nearly all of them do) that most Americans are deeply in need of more material goods -- bigger incomes, more prescription drugs, fewer foreign “competitors,” etc.

What most of us really need, they say, is more happiness, more purpose, and more meaning in our lives. And public policy should be oriented to giving us that!

Powerful new voice, urgent new context

Of course, a minority of Americans has always spoken out against rampant materialism (see RE:SOURCES section below). You tend to read the most eloquent of them in English class.

But sophisticated new studies -- real social science! -- now shows that most of us are not, and cannot be, made happy by more things.

If our politics is ever going to stop being a self-centered, give-us-more-and-more-and-the-future-be-damned free for all, then we need a whole new political discourse in this country.

One that will emphasize that most of us already have enough material things . . . and that our discontents have a lot more to do with our unmet needs for happiness, purpose, and meaning (which public policy can in fact be used to address).

About two years ago, a powerful book was published detailing those studies and making that argument, Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox (Random House).

In other words, it appeared about the same time as Lakoff’s book. It is is a pity -- it is a national tragedy -- that most Democratic activists have taken up with Lakoff rather than Easterbrook, and that most Republican activists have continued to sit at Karl Rove's feet.

Not only is Easterbrook’s book the most sophisticated summing up, ever, of why we need to privilege happiness, purpose, and meaning.  It’s the first book of its kind to come out of the Washington DC political establishment.

Easterbrook is a visiting fellow at the blue-chip Brookings Institution, not to mention senior editor at the New Republic, contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly, and contributing editor at the Washington Monthly.

But, psst: he’s also written a book about spirituality, Beside Still Waters. And a novel. And a 700-page book about environmentalism, discussed HERE. And his most widely-read endeavor is undoubtedly his regular football column for NFL.com.

The man practices what he preaches -- he lives an interesting and many-sided life. And he probably could be making a lot more money as an academic.

Strong stuff

The Progress Paradox is unpretentiously written and touches all the important bases.

First Easterbrook establishes that most Americans, the vast majority of us in fact, are “haves” so far as material goods are concerned -- and that life is getting better for the vast majority of us.

For example:

  • average household income is $68,000 a year now (!);
  • in our parents’ generation, most families had one car. Now we’re on track to have more cars than licensed drivers;
  • we’re on track to become the first society in history with more college graduates than not;
  • the typical man’s workweek has dropped 11 hours in the last 100 years (this despite the rise of millions of ambitious and work-oriented professionals);
  • crime is plummeting. For example, rape declined by 40% in the 1990s, and in many big cities homicides declined by 50% or more;
  • all environmental trends except for greenhouse-gas accumulation are positive, often dramatically positive;
  • in 1900 life expectancy in the U.S. was 41 years -- today it’s 66 years for the entire world;
  • U.S. IQ scores have risen about 20% since the beginning of the 1900s;
  • in 1996, black high school graduation rates became about the same as white rates (“needless to say, for the first time in U.S. history”).

But there’s one HUGE problem, Easterbrook adds. The trend line for happiness has been flat for 50 years. (He cites several impressive studies to back that up.) Moreover, although life is clearly getting better, most of us think things are getting worse!

What in the world is going on?

Easterbrook devotes about half the book to exploring why we’re not getting any happier and why we’re gloomy about the future. It’s a completely fascinating subject and at least 20 (partial) answers are brought to light. Possibly the most compelling:

“Because Democratic and Republican political charges and countercharges dominate newspapers and television talk shows, we hear constant exaggeration of the faults of the country, coupled to little discussion of what’s going well.”

But that hardly exhausts the subject. Other factors richly described by Easterbrook include:

  • the “Tyranny of the Unnecessary,” i.e. for most of us a hapless blurring of needs and wants;
  • gratitude and appreciation is not natural to us because we practice it so little in our daily lives;
  • professional fundraisers have discovered that we’re uncannily more responsive to bad news than to good;
  • evolution may have conditioned us to believe the worst;
  • nearly all of us are in debt, and that fact (not to mention calls from collection agencies) may induce “constant low-grade nervousness” in us;
  • the more we earn, the more we feel we need -- “the goalposts constantly move”;
  • uncertainty about the future may prevent us from appreciating that the present is in fact good.

Whatever reasons turn out to be most valid, the conclusion is inescapable, says Easterbrook. Beyond a certain minimum point -- once the middle-class level is reached, says University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener; at about $10,000 per capita per annum, says Dutch researcher Ruut Veenhoven -- money decouples from happiness.

Beyond a certain minimum point, more stuff won’t make us happy. Beyond a certain minimum point, you need to go after happiness directly -- via family, friends, “good work” -- via whatever gives you a larger sense of purpose and meaning.

Political implications

According to Easterbrook, a good society doesn’t have to orient itself to meeting nearly everyone’s constant demands for MORE. In fact, a good society is arguably one that doesn’t encourage middle-class people to fight for more and more money and services.

It could be one that devises public policies to help us meet our needs for happiness, purpose, and meaning.

That’s not as esoteric a goal as it may sound.

Easterbrook notes that Aristotle “said that an enlightened society would be ordered with the goal of helping its citizens become happy.”

Easterbrook also notes that the founding fathers “did not laud ‘the pursuit of happiness’ because they considered this self-indulgence. Rather, they knew that happiness both ought to be a goal of life, and makes for better citizens.”

The challenge, of course, is setting forth a series of public policies that can get us from here to there. And that’s where Easterbrook’s book is uniquely strong.

He wants the health care system to expand to help each of us learn to do at least the following:

-- expect tribulations, “blue periods,” difficulties in life (would cut down on depression manyfold);

-- be more forgiving;

-- be more grateful.

In addition, he wants domestic public policies that would accomplish the following:

-- provide health insurance for all;

-- end poverty among the working poor by providing a true “living wage”; and

-- prevent “greed at the top” of the corporate hierarchy.

Those goals may sound suspiciously liberal, but their rationales are anything but. Easterbrook loathes noblesse-oblige and make-paste-of-the-middle-class rhetoric. Instead, he stresses how much happier most middle class people would be if they lived in a fairer society:

“Until there is reasonable health coverage for all, American prosperity is tainted. . . . Higher wages for the struggling . . . represents an attractive bargain: both a moral necessity and in the self-interest of anyone who is not coldhearted. . . . [If] no corporate leaders were engaged in glorified shoplifting, we could all enjoy our prosperity more. Happiness might rise.”

Finally, Easterbrook wants the U.S. and the European Union to commit themselves to ending global hunger and disease (in Easterbrook’s terms, “global despair”) ASAP, and damn the cost.

He gives some details -- it would actually cost less than many believe -- but again, the rationale’s the thing. Easterbrook does NOT speak of spoiled beneficiaries of corrupt Western imperialism finally paying their due. Instead, he says combating global despair would give us a larger purpose and meaning.

In other words, it would not only help the poor. It would help to make us happy. Genuinely happy, in a way that goods and services rarely can.

And isn’t that what politics in 21st century America should be about?

If only

If I have a criticism of Easterbrook’s book, it’s that it’s a bit pudgy and repetitive and sometimes loses momentum. One can ask too many interesting questions.

George Lakoff’s book from 10 years ago, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, had the same “problem.” He whittled it down to the succinct and sharply pointed Don’t Think of an Elephant!, at which point his ideas caught fire.

How I wish Easterbrook would whittle The Progress Paradox down to an equally pointed tract. Its approach to political discourse is not only more healing than Lakoff’s, it is more genuinely radical in the sense of getting at the roots of our discontent.

Dear Gregg Easterbrook: In the long run, performing that service might make you even happier than your football column at NFL.com.


The Progress Paradox is the most sophisticated and public-policy-credible of a long line of books calling for a less materialistic and more meaning-oriented political discourse. Relatively recent examples include Michael Lerner, The Politics of Meaning (1996); Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life (1992); Herman Daly and John Cobb Jr., For the Common Good (1989); Andrew Schmookler, Out of Weakness (1988); Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity (1981); Hazel Henderson, Creating Alternative Futures (1978); Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet (1978); Mark Satin, New Age Politics (1976); Tibor Scitovsky, The Joyless Economy (1976); Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961); and Vance Packard, The Waste Makers (1960). Sadly, Easterbrook acknowledges none of these admittedly imperfect forebears.

Nor does Easterbrook acknowledge a strikingly similar book by a major thinker on the conservative side of the fence, Charles Murray's courageous In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (1988).  But nearly everyone chose to neglect that book, which may be why Murray recently whittled it down to the succinct and sharply pointed In Our Hands (2006), discussed HERE

For a wonderful review of various calls for a less materialistic orientation throughout American history, see David Shi, The Simple Life (1985), or Shi’s follow-up anthology, In Search of the Simple Life (1986).


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