Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?

Are We Trading Our Happiness for Modern Comforts?

As society gets richer, people chase the wrong things.

via the Atlantic by Arthur C Brooks

One of the greatest paradoxes in American life is that while, on average, existence has gotten more comfortable over time, happiness has fallen.

According to the United States Census Bureau, average household income in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, was higher in 2019 than has ever been recorded for every income quintile. And although income inequality has risen, this has not been mirrored by inequality in the consumption of goods and services. For example, from 2008 to 2019, households in the lowest income quintile increased spending on eating out by an average of about 22 percent after correcting for inflation; the top quintile increased spending on eating out by an average of just under 8 percent. Meanwhile, domestic government services have increased significantly: For example, federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services increased from 2000 to 2019 by about 30 percent in inflation-adjusted terms.

New American homes in 2016 were 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973 and living space per person, on average, has nearly doubled. The number of Americans who use the internet increased from 52 to 90 percent from 2000 to 2019. The percentage who use social media grew from 5 to 72 percent from 2005 to 2019.

But amid these advances in quality of life across the income scale, average happiness is decreasing in the U.S. The General Social Survey, which has been measuring social trends among Americans every one or two years since 1972, shows a long-term, gradual decline in happiness—and rise in unhappiness—from 1988 to the present.

There are several possible explanations for this paradox: It could be that people are uninformed about all of this amazing progress, that we can’t perceive progress very well when it occurs over decades, or that we are measuring the wrong indicators of “quality of life.” I suspect the answer is all three. The last idea, however, is especially important to understand in order to improve our own happiness.

There’s nothing new about the idea that consumption doesn’t lead to happiness—that concept is a mainstay of just about every religion, and many philosophical traditions as well. Arguably, Karl Marx’s greatest insight came from his theory of alienation, in part defined as a sense of estrangement from the self that comes from being part of a materialistic society in which we are cogs in an enormous market-based machine.

But you don’t have to be religious (or a Marxist) to see how absurd some of the claims that come out of our hyper-consumerist society are. We are promised happiness with the next pay raise, the next new gadget—even the next sip of soda. The Swedish business professor Carl Cederström argues persuasively in his book The Happiness Fantasy that corporations and advertisers have promised satisfaction, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. Though the material comforts of life in the U.S. have increased for many of its citizens, those things don’t give life meaning.

The answer, as Marx and his modern followers today would have it, is to adopt a different system of economic governance, specifically scientific socialism, which leaves people less exposed to the power of markets. But it’s not at all clear that this is the road to greater well-being. Indeed, many have observed that socialism’s focus on who gets what is every bit as materialistic as a market-based society.

Though government intervention can certainly help meet basic needs—food on the table, money when people are unemployed, health care that doesn’t break the bank—interacting with the government is not a joyful process. Even in our mixed economy, people get caught up in the net of bureaucracy. Writing in The Atlantic, the political theorist Bernardo Zacka describes the popular conception of bureaucracy’s rules (“innumerable, entangled, often impenetrable”), physical attributes (“fluorescent-lit, with rows of identical chairs and gray partition panels”), and people (“distant, unconcerned”). Scientific socialism—or at least, scientific public administration—reduces citizenship to a series of cold transactions with the government.

Empty consumerism and soulless government are the traditional two explanations for our modern alienation. These days, there is a brand-new one: tech. The tech revolution promised us our heart’s desires: everything you want to know at the click of a mouse; the ability to become famous to strangers; anything you want to buy, delivered to your door in days without you having to leave home.

But our happiness has not increased as a result—on the contrary. Mounting evidence shows that media and technology use predict deleterious psychological and physiological outcomes, especially among young people. This is particularly true in the case of social-media use. The psychologist Jean M. Twenge has shown that social media increases depression, especially among girls and young women…

… keep reading the full & original article HERE

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