Prayer for Us
Sense & SpiritualitySENSE & SPIRITUALITY
opinion & commentary on
the modern spiritual search
by D. Patrick Miller
When People Feel Bad about Good Things Happening
If you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, you may need to update your attitude. In his new book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, journalist Gregg Easterbrook has gathered a formidable array of facts and figures to suggest that human beings have never had it so good on this planet — at least the 500 million human beings who are fortunate enough to live in America, Western Europe, Australia and Japan. “The creation of entire regions of the world in which most people are well-off — in which the typical person lives what all previous generations considered a dream — is without precedent in history,” says Easterbrook:
“Public health is improving by nearly every measure…. Doomsday claims to the contrary, environmental trends are nearly all positive…. Drinking, smoking, and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. Women, immigrants, and minority group members are acquiring ever-larger slices of national pies. The divorce rate has stopped increasing. Personal freedom has never been greater. Book sales hit new records almost every year. Movies and television may at times be excruciating, but otherwise art and culture have never been more active, interesting or diverse. Nearly all forms of death due to accident are declining. Crime has declined so rapidly that the fall has been almost eerie…. ”
And so on. All these sunny conclusions, and more, are backed up by oodles of statistics selected by Easterbrook — although skeptics may observe, as did a Publishers Weekly review of Paradox, that one could always come up with alternative statistics to prove that things are really awful. Indeed, political candidates, lobbyists, and virtually all journalists besides Easterbrook butter their bread with bad news, and the general public depends on what they hear from such sources to fashion their grasp of reality. As an example, Easterbrook reports that “Overestimation of crime is amplified by the fact that 45 percent of crimes reported in the media involve sex or violence, though only 3 percent of all crimes involve sex or violence. Television’s sex-and-violence-obsessed approach causes viewers to have highly unrealistic impressions of the risks in their own lives….”
Even Easterbrook admits that some of the progress he cites has a real and undeniable backlash. The unprecedented freedom of movement enjoyed by civilized Westerners has created the modern scourges of air pollution, traffic jams, and deceptively dangerous SUVs careening along the freeways. In the ranks of poverty, there has been a dramatic and ironic shape-shifting: instead of being thin and malnourished as they would have been a century ago, today’s poor Americans are more likely to be obese and diabetic. And in terms of geopolitics, the tension created by the gap between Western affluence and severe poverty in other parts of the world obviously contributes to terrorism and other forms of violent conflict.
But the biggest paradox of the West’s undeniable material and social progress is that we just don’t feel very good about it. “Adjusting for population growth,” notes Easterbrook, “ten times as many people in the Western nations today suffer from ’unipolar’ depression, or unremitting bad feelings without a specific cause, than did half a century ago. Americans and Europeans have ever more of everything except happiness.” In part this is because most of us are making too much money to buy a better disposition; Easterbrook cites one study suggesting that for those making less than $10,000 yearly, getting more money really does increase their happiness. For those used to making more than $10,000, greater affluence may hold the promise of more joy and satisfaction but generally fails to deliver. Since the average per-capita income in the US and Western Europe is about $30,000, many of us have long passed the point where winning the lottery really will feel like a dream come true.
Where Easterbrook thinks we can find greater peace and contentment is in the conscious development of inner qualities that most reporters don’t like to talk about, lest their colleagues suspect them of going all warm and fuzzy. But Easterbrook suggests that “society is undergoing a fundamental shift from ‘material want’ to ‘meaning want,’ with ever larger numbers of people reasonably secure in terms of living standards, but feeling they lack significance in their lives…. This is a conundrum, as meaning is much more difficult to acquire than material possessions.”
Finding meaning is not an impossible quest, however. In Easterbrook’s view, the key to the search is consciously developing the attitudes of forgiveness, gratefulness, and optimism. And he tirelessly presents more studies and statistics to support that proposition — including the intriguing information that people who acknowledge the importance of gratitude in their lives also tend to be a little more cynical about the state of the world than habitual ingrates.
That may seem paradoxical, but to me it indicates a dimension of spiritual experience that Easterbrook doesn’t explore in this work. The fact is that forgiveness and gratefulness, if deliberately practiced as spiritual disciplines, don’t merely lead us toward feeling better about how good (or bad) our lives are in material terms. If these attitudes become truly ingrained in our consciousness over time, they increasingly lead us toward the surrender of “material reality” — and the acceptance of spiritual experience as a surpassing reality. Along the way toward that momentous shift in vision, it’s entirely possible to feel that the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that conventional efforts to “save” or significantly change it aren’t likely to succeed. That means people who practice gratefulness and forgiveness may sometimes still be tempted to think the world is going to hell in a handbasket. But they will also understand that things are not as they seem in the everyday material world — and that all things can be transformed by an ever-deepening spiritual perception and activism.
Early in my own gratitude practice, I learned the importance of feeling grateful for the seemingly negative events or circumstances in my life, with the eventual result that what once seemed bad turned good, at least in terms of serving as useful challenges. The more forgiving and grateful you feel for all the current circumstances of life, the more you will appreciate that those circumstances only reflect your inner state of mind. In fact that’s why some people can be happy about relatively meager circumstances, and others will be bitter in the midst of riches. I don’t expect a senior editor of The New Republic to blow the lid off the story that our reality is spirit and all else is illusion — but I’m nonetheless grateful that a mainstream journalist has gone teetering out on a limb as far as Gregg Easterbrook dares to go.
D. Patrick Miller is a writer, editor, and independent publisher specializing in contemporary spirituality. The author of five books and over 75 magazine articles, he examines social and political issues from an eclectic spiritual viewpoint without evangelizing for any particular religious belief. This edition of his “Sense & Spirituality” column is reprinted with permission from the Fearless Books website at www.fearlessbooks.com
Susanna wrote me a thoughtful email in response to the "Sense & Spirituality" piece above. She raises questions every purveyor of pronoia should deal with. What do you think?
D. Patrick Miller's piece bugged me because while he and the book he discusses note that it is people in the "civilized world" that are so well-off, he neglects to mention that we are well-off precisely on the backs of the rest of the people who are sewing our clothes, growing our food, etc. for sub-living wages in dangerous work environments and living environments.
Maybe the reason First Worlders are discontent is that beneath the surface surfeit of stuff, we realize the fundamental contradiction: that our plenty depends on the misery of others. This doesn't require only the cultivation of personal values like forgiveness, gratefulness, and optimism, but also putting these to service in group public action against the scourges of poverty, misogyny, racism, and imperialism that plague our world.
Here's D. Patrick Miller's response to Susanna:
Although I didn't have the space to summarize all of Gregg Easterbrook's message in a short column, he (and I) would certainly agree with Susanna that part of the West's unhappiness has to do with an unconscious recognition of economic inequalities from which the West benefits.
In fact he spends some time in the book detailing some Western excesses of affluence and recommending more effective foreign aid, etc. And it's safe to assume that he promotes the inner qualities of forgiveness, gratefulness, and optimism precisely because he believes they should be applied, as Susanna suggests, "to service in group public action against the scourges of poverty, misogyny, racism, and imperialism that plague our world."
What I have to say about that, however, is that political activists rarely act from such a spiritual basis; instead they more often act from inner attitudes of anger, embitterment, moral superiority, and either a self-defeating fatalism or a self-promoting righteousness. I know that when I was younger I thought you had to be really angry to change the world for the better.
Now I know that anger is the least productive political emotion, and serves chiefly to make the angry activist feel important while he or she actually gets relatively little accomplished. Anger clouds your perception; forgiveness clears it. Clarity is essential to political action that actually creates positive change.
D. Patrick Miller
© 1995-2013 -- Rob Brezsny. All rights reserved