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Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2004 / 27 Shevat, 5764

Betsy Hart

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Why we're so miserable even though we're so well off | My dear departed mom used to say, "Some people just aren't happy unless they have something to feel miserable about."

That could sum up "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse," the new book by New Republic editor Gregg Easterbrook (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.). Easterbrook recounts how we in today's West and particularly in the United States have greater wealth, freedom, health, technological innovation and ease of life than our great-great-grandparents could have ever imagined. Had our forebears been able to get a glimpse of the kind of lives most of us live today, he says, they might well have bemoaned the moral decay, but they would have thought that in most ways it was a vision of paradise.

"Every one of our great-great-grandparents would have known someone who died of a disease that today is shrugged at," Easterbrook notes. Or consider that ". . . the typical person (is) now engaged in exertion (either for pay or within the household) about half as many hours as in the nineteenth century." Not to mention that we "enjoy goods and services in almost unlimited supply, travel where we wish quickly and relatively cheaply. . . and wail in sorrow when anyone dies young, for this once-routine event has become a wrenching rarity."

So, we should all be pretty happy with things, right? Well, needless to say we're not.

As Easterbrook recounts, "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. . ." and that was BEFORE Sept. 11, 2001.

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Not only has the number of Americans who describe themselves as "happy" not budged since the 1950s, the number of Americans who are clinically depressed has gone up ten times. Sure, some of the increase has to do with better identification of depression, and with reduced social stigma in reporting it. But Easterbrook, like most experts who study depression, believe its rate has in fact increased significantly in the last five decades.

Easterbrook is no socialist who bemoans the "material decadence" of the West in modern times. He thinks it's much better to have the "freedom" to be depressed than to be so busy scratching out a basic subsistence living you can't stop to think about how you feel about things.

Still, why is it that as life gets better, we seem to feel worse about it? Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president of the American Psychological Association, thinks there are four main reasons why depression has risen so much.

As Easterbrook recounts Seligman's views, first there is too much emphasis on individualism, so minor setbacks become major catastrophes. Seligman says, "past emphasis on family, faith, patriotism, and community was sometimes suffocating, but also allowed individuals to view their private setbacks as minor elements within a larger context."

Then there's the self-esteem craze. "Self-esteem emphasis has made millions think there's something fundamentally wrong if you don't feel good, as opposed to just, 'I don't feel good now but I will later.' "

Seligman also believes that part of the problem is the "postwar teaching of victimology and helplessness" and, finally, runaway consumerism.

And this isn't just about adults _ some 2 million prescriptions for antidepressants were handed out to children last year.

This isn't to blame those who experience depression, a real illness that can take a terrible toll, and which can often be treated. But significantly rising rates of depression at least suggest there are some systemic problems in how we as a society face our world today.

Anyway, depression is just one barometer Easterbrook examines in determining we have some serious emotional troubles.

What to do? Easterbook's book is not a religious one, though he touches on the importance of religion in addressing these problems. But in a worldly sense, he points out that research is overwhelming that people who consistently forgive others and overlook wrongs are far more likely to find happiness than those who consider themselves victims.

Easterbrook also shows that simply being grateful for what one has, even in a purely secular sense, is profoundly beneficial to our emotional state.

As Easterbrook says, forgiveness and gratitude require effort, bitterness does not. He writes, "seek happiness and you may or may not find it; seek grievances and you are guaranteed success."

Once again, of course, it turns out my mother was right.

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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