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  • Unhappily Trapped in the Emancipation-Dilemma
  • Hans Blokland (bio)

A mounting pressure of work and a lack of substantial-rational understanding of the causes and consequences of this pressure are important manifestations of the process of modernization. In his monumental The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies Robert Lane analyzes in depth the social and individual consequences of living in a modernized society dominated by a narrow interpretation of rationality. The link between modernization and our loss of happiness, though, he has not yet fully addressed. As a consequence, he seems to be a bit too optimistic about the possibilities of alleviating the widespread desperation he finds in market democracies. To the painting of a picture of the future of these societies that is even more depressing than Lane's, I will make a small contribution.

Since the beginning of the seventies working hours have been increasing in the United States. The damaging results of too many people working too many hours are a lack of "quality-time" with one's children, partner, friends and community-members; lack of sleep, leisure and quietude; and a generalized disposition to define social relationships in instrumental ways (the "Machiavellian syndrome"). Related to this, Robert Lane confirms the critique on modern, individualistic societies of theorists like Tönnies, Simmel, Fromm, Mumford and Wirth that social relations in these societies are characterized by coldness, impersonality, self-centeredness, superficiality and instrumentality. As a consequence, Lane shows, the self-reported well-being of Americans has been on the decline for about three decades. Europe is lagging, as usual, but the trend is in the same direction. Lane signals "a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relations, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solidary family life" (2000: 9). Due to this lack of social support people have become much more vulnerable to the misfortunes of life: illnesses, stress, unemployment, disappointments in relationships, frustrated ambitions, failed expectations, et cetera. The end result is a widespread, but quiet desperation.

Why do people continue to work with a determination that definitely goes at the expense of pursuits that really contribute to their happiness? In Lane's view people are caught in a "hedonic treadmill": although in the developed countries any connection between income and well-being has been absent since about the fifties, people are still convinced that more material goods will bring a higher level of happiness. This is what they have been taught and what a barrage of media messages is telling them every day. Working harder and longer makes them in fact unhappier, but the conclusion drawn from this unhappiness leads them to intensify their work efforts. A century ago Max Weber (1905) predicted that the capitalist work ethic would ceaselessly reinforce and deepen itself in a capitalist social system. Lane affirms that the treadmill is inherent to our society: "Like other successful societies, market democracies must, by the logic of their own success, continue to emphasize the themes that have brought them to their current eminent positions. In these circumstances, individuals are not, in any practical sense, free to go against the culture that nurtures them . . ." (2000: 60).

Leaving the treadmill, thus, is not an easy step in a market democracy. Markets lack mechanisms to correct their "hedonic failure" because everything that in developed economies contributes to happiness—family life, friendship, and labor satisfaction—is counted as a "market externality" (2000: 327). No firm is interested in producing, advertising and disseminating these worthless goods. And as long as voters do not understand what in their present affluent circumstances would really contribute to their well- being, nothing is to be expected from democracies either. Although psychological research teaches that, especially in matters of well-being, this assumption is simply false (2000: 283ff), markets and democracies alike rely on the assumption that individuals know best what is in their interest. Therefore, both start, and to a high extent end, with the existing preferences.


With his analysis of our inability of give up a way of life that mainly produces misery, Lane fits well in a long tradition that goes back, at a minimum, to Marx and Weber. Lane's analysis is superior, though...


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pp. 58-62
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