The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse

International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management

ISSN: 1741-0401

Article publication date: 1 July 2004



(2004), "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse", International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Vol. 53 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse

Gregg EasterbrookRandom House$24.95

Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox is a useful counterblast to those doom-mongers who insists that everything about this modern life is worse “than it was in my day”. He offers compelling evidence that in material terms we are more prosperous than ever before. In fact, not just more prosperous – but much more so. Easterbrook does concede that poverty still persists, but argues that it is a relative concept and thus will always exist. “True poverty” is much less evident.

Perhaps more surprisingly, he then goes on to suggest that, despite the prevailing prejudice, “qualitative” factors of life are also improving. Environmental trends are nearly all positive and public health is similarly improving – by nearly every measure. The next myth to be dispelled is the one about our paying the price for our prosperity through a lack of discretionary time. Most people have more disposable free time than their counterparts in recent decades and “leisure time” is available to all – after all, the leisure industry has mushroomed.

The paradox, addressed in this book, is that in spite of all this progress, “inner lives” appear to be impoverished and disoriented. Easterbrook sets out to examine factors that may explain why, though things are getting better, we feel worse.

Part of the explanation, he suggests is “choice anxiety” – there are so many options available to us that we get confused and anxious. Similarly, we suffer from “abundance denial – the feeling that we don’t have enough; and “collapse anxiety” – a belief that our prosperity will crash due to some economic breakdown, environmental crisis or other catastrophe. Easterbrook also argues that society is undergoing a shift from “material want” to “meaning want” – although large numbers of people feel secure about their living standards, they feel their lives lack meaning.

Easterbrook does a good job of describing this pervasive sense of cultural malaise, though he fails to provide an explanation for it. Instead, he explains one symptom, feeling unhappy, by a variety of other prevailing symptoms – depression, anxiety and stress. In searching for solutions, he looks to the field of positive psychology to find a solution to the paradox.

Easterbrook suggests that the way to happiness is to think positively through becoming more forgiving and more grateful. This argument is justified on the grounds that adopting these characteristics is not altruistic, but in one’s own self-interest. This may be too simplistic – an appeal merely to self-interest may neglect his more important issues concerned with developing a wider sense of “meaning”.

This is therefore an interesting and useful book – but ultimately slightly frustrating. The search for “meaning” is as long as the history of mankind. Easterbrook is correct in suggesting that the “search” has perhaps taken on a new dimension in being more pervasive through a material society. However, more exploration of that search would have rendered this book more complete and would perhaps have gone further to resolving the paradox.

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