BOOKS: If things are getting better, why do we feel so anxious?

The Progress Paradox: How life gets better while people feel worse; Gregg Easterbrook; Random House, US$24.95; MT price: £15.99 (see panel, p34)

by Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

- This book looks to positive psychology as the path back to happiness. But finding meaning is not just a personal quest, it's an issue for society, says Frank Furedi.

When the cold winter weather hit us, my colleague warned me that 'this is the beginning of a new global ice age'. Last summer, in the midst of the beautiful hot weather, he was holding forth about the catastrophic effects of global warming. He is not the only person I know who subsists on a daily diet of doom and gloom.

Expecting the worst has become a dominant cultural response to all aspects of our life.

We believe that the food we eat is getting worse; we suspect that obesity is going to destroy the human race; every innovation and new technology is bound to have some hazardous side effect; the environment is precariously close to destruction; if Sars doesn't get us, it's only a matter of time before some other killer bug will.

Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox provides a powerful antidote to our obsessive conviction that things are going from bad to worse. He offers compelling evidence that in material terms we are more prosperous than ever before. Compared with our grandparents, we are not just more but a lot more prosperous. Easterbrook concedes that poverty still persists, but argues that even the poor are not as poor as in the past.

Despite prevailing prejudice, environmental trends are nearly all positive and public health is improving by nearly every measure. The myth that we are paying the price for our prosperity by living through an era of time-famine is convincingly dispelled by the author. 'Long-hours culture' is a bit of that myth; we have more disposable free time than in previous years and, as Easterbrook notes, leisure 'once an exclusive province of the elite class, now is increasingly available to almost everyone'.

But while the material aspects of our lives may be getting better, our inner lives appear to be impoverished and disoriented. Making sense of this paradox is the main focus of the book. Easterbrook examines factors that may explain why, when living standards are improving, we feel worse.

Among the many possible explanations, he explores 'choice anxiety' - the many options open to us may be a source of confusion and anguish; 'abundance denial' - the feeling that we don't have enough; and 'collapse anxiety' - the sentiment that Western prosperity will crash due to some economic breakdown, environmental crisis or other catastrophe. He also argues that society is undergoing a shift from 'material want' to 'meaning want' - so that although large numbers of people feel secure about their living standards, they feel their lives lack meaning.

While Easterbrook does a good job of describing our pervasive sense of cultural malaise, 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 line with the growing interest in happiness, he looks to the field of positive psychology to find a solution to the paradox of progress. To put it simplistically, positive psychology identifies the state of unhappiness as the problem and puts forward the attainment of happiness as the solution.

But happiness is a difficult concept. Research on this subject tends to objectify happiness as something that can be measured and compared over time. However, it is far from clear what is being measured. In any case, how we feel and how we express our feelings is not simply an individual matter. Instead of feeling happy, our culture instructs us to feel 'comfortable','chilled' or 'relaxed'.

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 in your self-interest. At a time when, as the author recognises, the obsession with the self is one the most unpleasant features of our culture, the call for attending to your self-interest may complicate the problem.

But, more importantly, this appeal to self-interest distracts us from the important task of developing a wider sense of meaning. In any case, the diminishing capacity of our culture to endow human action with meaning makes it difficult to work out what is really in our self-interest.

It is a pity that Easterbrook did not develop his insights into what he calls 'meaning want'. The search for meaning has a long history, but today it is no longer simply a personal quest. Western society lacks a web of meaning through which individuals can make sense of their lives. Most psychological disorders and compulsive behaviours are the product of our silent struggle with meaning.

When the meaning of our existence remains unresolved, it is difficult to accept that things are getting better. The desire to raise our level of happiness may well distract us from confronting the fundamental question of meaning.

- Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His book Therapy Culture: Cultivating vulnerability in an anxious age was recently published by Routledge.

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