In The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook describes a seemingly puzzling fact about the condition of people now living in the United States and Europe. In many undeniable ways we are living in a better world than our forebears. Most of us have unlimited food at affordable prices, with hunger being a less common problem than overindulgence. Our average life spans in the past century have climbed from forty-four years to seventy-seven, with the life expectancy of women in Sweden, for example, climbing at a rate of three months per year for the past two centuries. Many of the plagues of history, such as smallpox and polio, as well as many infectious diseases, have been defeated, while infant mortality has declined by 45 percent since 1980. Mortality from cancer has declined by 1 percent a year since the early 1990s, despite an overall aging population. Over the past century, there have been numerous advances in comfort, less bondage to backbreaking physical toil, and decreased average work hours as well as advances in freedom of expression, political freedom and sexual freedom. By almost every statistical measure, our overall physical conditions have improved markedly, a fact that is observable in even a relatively young adult’s life. The great paradox, however, is that the average percentage of people who describe themselves as “happy” hasn’t budged since the 1950s.
Easterbrook runs through an interesting set of possible explanations for this, including theories that contemporary life is plagued by choice anxieties, collapse anxiety, abundance guilt and a movement from material want to a want of meaning. Perhaps the most likely explanation [End Page 5] is the fact that human beings get used to their material circumstances fairly quickly, and their measure of what is enough and what is too little adjusts accordingly. I used to imagine that the spread of electricity, radio and better systems of travel during the early twentieth century must have been an amazing and wondrous experience for those who lived through it. Yet in reality, changes in comforts and material well-being—both public and private—are quickly absorbed and assumed to be the natural order. The other reality, which Easterbrook discusses at length, is that while the lack of money causes unhappiness, having it in abundance doesn’t cause lasting happiness. The paradoxes here go deeper than the obvious. For example, millionaires as a group are no happier than people of average income; the disabled and chronically ill report a slightly higher sense of well-being than the populations at large; and, as a group, older people are happier than young people.
Happiness is more likely to be affected by friendships, love and meaningful work than by merely having lots of money and amenities. Perhaps this is obvious enough not to even seem paradoxical. For most of the major religions of the world, the fact that happiness cannot come from wealth or living conditions alone is hardly news. But as one delves more deeply into the human condition, true enigmas do arise—of a kind that only imaginative artists and philosophers begin to address. The scary proximity and interconnectedness of good and bad fortune, and even of good and evil, is a reality that we have been particularly aware of since about a hundred years ago, when the world commenced ripping itself apart with world wars and the Modernists began envisioning their Wastelands. Before then, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche were already doubting easy, dogmatic premises about good and evil, and later the Existentialists carried that uncertainty still further by doubting there was any reliable meaning in the world other than what we give it through agency and choice. Much of our winter issue reminds me of this doubt and of the potential uncertainty of the given; it reminds me, too, of the need for action and choice to get beyond them.
In his story “Salvage,” Hal Walling describes a young man, Blake, resident in a small town on Vancouver Island, who has ties with the local drug culture. He is perceptive and aware of his own flaws and motivations, but when a friend of his is killed, he feels a strong sense...