The Progress Paradox

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 28, 2004

Why is it that even when life gets better, people still feel worse? This is the mystery that Gregg Easterbrook explores in a recent book called The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003]. We are living in a time of unprecedented material prosperity, and yet people are not much happier (if at all) than they have ever been. And Gregg Easterbrook wants to know why.

He begins by presenting many examples of the way that life has improved during the course of the last century, at least in material terms. Imagine what our great-great-grandparents would think if they could see our day. We are able to go more places faster than ever before. We have a seemingly limitless supply of affordable food in abundant varieties. We enjoy better health care, better education, better communication, and we have more time for leisure. Most people have their own homes, with heating and/or air conditioning, their own cars, their own television sets, and more. All of which leads Easterbrook to think that our forebears would say we are living in the Golden Age.

This is not to deny, of course, that many people are still living in need, even in America. But Easterbrook's point is that the average person in our country today is much better off than almost anyone at any other time in history. The great story of our era, he says, “has been the rise in well-being for the typical person” [p. 21]. Yesterday's royalty would think that we are living like kings. And even poor people, by today's standards, are richer than most people have ever been.

But we are not content. In fact, a majority of Americans say they feel that the country is going downhill, that the average person is worse off, that their parents lived a better life, and that their children face a declining future. Research shows that the psychological norm in our country is to feel “slightly satisfied,” and that our place on the happiness scale has remained more or less constant since the 1950's. Yesterday's dreams have become today's realities, but here is the paradox: “the incredible rise in living standards for the majority of Americans… has made them more affluent, healthier, more comfortable, more free, and sovereign over ever taller piles of stuff—but has not made them any happier” [pp. 160–61]. What Easterbrook wants to understand is why. It doesn't make any sense. We have more of almost everything that we could want, except happiness. Why not?

Easterbrook offers a number of helpful explanations. He speaks of “choice anxiety” or “catalog-induced anxiety,” the stress that comes from being overwhelmed by having so many things to buy. He speaks of “the revolution of satisfied expectations,” the sense of letdown that comes when we realize we have so much that we can't look forward to having anything more. He speaks of “collapse anxiety,” the fear that a coming economic disaster will destroy our way of life. Easterbook also makes the fascinating suggestion that the reason we are so unhappy is because we can never eliminate the most basic fear of all: the fear of death.

In addition to explaining why people feel worse when life gets better, Easterbrook offers some suggestions for what we can do about it. Among other things, he encourages us to appreciate what we have rather than grousing about what we don't have. People in our culture are far too proficient at complaining, he says. Instead, we should practice gratitude. Easterbrook also promotes positive psychology, in which we train ourselves to be more optimistic by thinking more positively about things.

These suggestions are fine as far as they go, but they do not get down to the core spiritual issues. Like many secular books about contemporary culture, The Progress Paradox is more helpful at pointing out the problems than it is at offering life-transforming solutions.

The true explanation for the progress paradox is that our deepest needs are spiritual, not material. We do have material needs. But when we try to find spiritual satisfaction in material things, we soon discover that our souls are not satisfied, that our desire for transcendence has not been slaked. The problem is not what is outside us, but what is inside. What we really need—and what we are really looking for—is a relationship with the living God. We will never be content until we learn to say to Him, as Asaph learned to say: “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). And this perspective only comes when God does a deep work of grace in our lives, making Jesus bigger to us while everything else becomes smaller.

Not long ago my mother observed that by the grace of God her desire for earthly possessions had gradually lessened. During the course of her spiritual pilgrimage, as she had grown closer to God, some of the things she had once wanted out of life had ceased to become so important. And yet, strangely, she found that she actually derived more genuine pleasure from earthly blessings than ever before. She was learning, she said, to enjoy the pleasures of a good home, a holiday feast, an old friendship, a nice vacation, or a special concert the way that God meant for her to enjoy them.

This too is a paradox—not of progress, but of contentment. The more satisfaction we find in God, the less we desire material comforts, but at the same time, the better able we are truly to enjoy them. This is one good test of our spiritual progress, especially during the holidays. Are material things growing more important to you, or less? Are you spending more time thinking about the things that you want, or less? Understand that if you are not content with what you have, then you will not be content with what you think you want, either. Real contentment comes when Jesus is enough for you, all by himself.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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