Aberdeen, SD. If you are familiar with certain corners of the Twitter universe (heaven help us), you are aware of a recent report from Pew that Americans, in general, think that we are worse off than we were fifty years ago. Some folks, especially those most dedicated to free markets, think this claim is absurd. Surely we are much better off today than we were in 1973. Here’s just another example of Americans being convinced by a bunch of doomsdayers and naysayers that they are simply victims and things were better in some lost golden age.

It was Bernard Lewis, the scholar of the Middle East, who once pointed out that golden ages are always somewhere else and in some distant past. No one ever thinks that they are currently living in a “golden age.” Some of us, especially those with a conservative disposition, have to fight the urge to think that things were always better “back then.” In many ways we are far better off than fifty years ago.

Let’s look at the world. Compared to fifty years ago there is significantly less disease, hunger, infant mortality, and illiteracy. Life expectancy has soared in most parts of what in 1973 we called the Third World. By any measure the material condition of the average world denizen, especially among the poor, is far better than it used to be. One reason for this is globalization. The knocking down of trade barriers and the greater economic interconnectedness of the world have greatly reduced the cost of getting food, medicine, building materials, books, clean water, etc., to the poorest regions of the world. Heck, it is simply easier to move money around. With the possible exception of sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest places on Earth are still poor, but that poverty pales in comparison to the crushing hunger and poverty of fifty years ago. While the Pew poll is about America, one would think that knowledge that the world is far wealthier and better fed would contribute to American happiness.

The same is true even in wealthy America. Some of us remember the 1970s. The houses were smaller. Air conditioning was still a luxury, either in your home or your car. A microwave oven was exceptional. My family didn’t have a dishwasher until I was thirteen (i.e., 1984). I was in awe of friends whose houses had TWO bathrooms. If you wanted cash, you had to go to the bank or cash a check at the grocery store because there were no ATMs. Treatment for many diseases and ailments was either non-existent or crude. The MRI machine didn’t exist. Any surgery was invasive and likely meant great pain and days in the hospital. If your knees or hips broke down there were no joint replacements. It was “Here’s some aspirin and good luck.” A cancer diagnosis was likely a death sentence. Our cars are better made than in the past, getting better fuel milage, lasting longer, polluting far less, and keeping us safer.

You had a limited number of entertainment choices. Where I grew up (in Southern Minnesota) we had five television channels and, pre-VCR, no ability to record anything. Perhaps it is a triviality, but I carry in my pocket a device that allows me to listen to the greatest music ever made, watch great films, and find maps and information about whatever I want. I don’t have to wait for the weather report on the radio. I just open an app on my phone, and I know the forecast for the next ten days. I know smart phones have a pernicious side, but my point is that we can’t ignore the great benefits they give us. Again, those of us over a certain age know how much of a pain it was to stay in touch with someone in the past. My kids watch old television shows and movies and wonder how anyone knew where anyone was as my kids just assume you can easily text your spouse, “Hey, I am at the store. What do we need?” or “Are you picking up the kids?” or “Oh crap, the car broke down. I am going to be late.” Let’s admit it, that’s kinda cool. As a teacher I often find technology to be hinderance to learning, but I must say that the internet, especially YouTube, really comes in handy in the classroom. I can easily show charts, video clips, news stories, maps—all at the press of a button.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. And, yes, I am aware that there are ways in which some of the things I mentioned as benefits have their downside (I think of Matthew Crawford’s arguments that all the technology in our cars has actually made the driving experience worse) and that some things might have actually declined (example: appliances certainly do not last as long as in the past, although today’s appliances are much more energy efficient). If you’ve been screaming at the screen, “Yes, but what about…” rest assured, I know. I am laying out evidence that one might use to say things are better than fifty years ago. The brief argument is that by all sorts of measures, Americans lead easier, more convenient lives and are far more comfortable than we were in 1973. Similar trends hold for people in other countries as well.

So why might Americans think life is worse now when materially that is almost certainly not the case? It has been noted that in the Pew survey it was those over fifty, the people who actually remember 1973, who are the most pessimistic. They aren’t just denouncing an imagined past; it is one they lived. Why might they experience these material benefits as corresponding to a decline in life satisfaction?

The essential problem of the “things are obviously better than in 1973” argument is that it is fundamentally materialistic. Let’s put it this way. Imagine you come into a large sum of money in some legitimate manner. You get a big promotion, get a newer, better job, maybe an unexpected inheritance. Whatever the source of money, you now are able to pay off your debts. You can build your dream home. You purchase that sweet car you’ve always wanted. You send your kid to the best school in town. You have some nagging health issues which you can now afford to deal with. You take your spouse on a vacation to that place the two of you have always wanted to go. You are able to be generous to friends, family, church, community. In short, you have all the comforts that money can buy. And then one day your spouse and kids go to the store and in a horrible accident they are all killed. Are you better off now than before you had money?

Of course you aren’t. This tells us that while material measures count for something, ultimately they are not what makes life worthwhile. In his much underrated book In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, Charles Murray notes that the evidence suggests that once someone gets to subsistence and then a little bit more, having more money contributes very little to happiness. Murray posits a thought experiment. Imagine you know you and your spouse are going to die. What do you do with your kids? Let’s say you have only two choices. You could place your kids with Family A, a family with considerable money, resources, and connections. But they are uncaring, morally vacuous, and essentially unconcerned with your kids’ moral development. They are rich but vulgar. Or there is Family B. They are poor, but they are hardworking, they are deeply involved in their church and community, and they will demand moral excellence from your kids. They are poor but virtuous. I think we all choose Family B.

Murray himself became interested in happiness as a Peace Corps worker in Thailand. Why were these materially poor Thai folks so happy, while people back home in the United States were far less so? I think of an acquaintance I knew many years ago who had just graduated from Harvard. As part of her college studies she had travelled to Kenya and spent significant time with rural Kenyans. The Kenyans were almost universally happy while, she reported in a phrase I will never forget, “Everyone at Harvard is sad.”

Let me posit two reasons why Americans might be right to think things are worse now than fifty years ago despite the fact that materially things are much improved. First, why are those Thais and Kenyans so happy? Maybe they have things that have precipitously declined in America over the last half century: family, friends, and faith. We know that our marriage rate is in steep decline. Never since we have records has a smaller proportion of Americans been married than today. Also, our families are getting smaller. Many people are childless, and those who do have children often have just one or two. It also appears we have fewer friends than ever before. The fastest growing religious group, especially among the young, is the “nones,” people who are connected to no faith tradition. This does not mean they are atheists, although that is also increasingly the case. It does mean that they are unconnected to any religious community and individually pursue whatever faith they might have. Add all this up and we have an epidemic of loneliness so severe that the Surgeon General has now raised the alarm. As someone who has been teaching college students for over two decades now, I can tell you the number one change in students over that time is the marked increase in depression and anxiety, easily the number one pathology on campus. Pardon the self-reference and shameless marketing if I note that I co-authored a whole book the thesis of which is that an era of autonomy and free expression will not lead to blissful liberation and happiness but deep sadness and anxiety. Add to this the bitter disagreements over politics, the harsh polarization, the decline in patriotism—all these erode social cohesion, the notion that we are all in this together. One can only point out that one of the highlights of the 1970s, Schoolhouse Rock, regularly featured cartoons so unabashedly pro-American (even extolling Manifest Destiny!) that the ideas articulated in the cartoons would get you banned from many college campuses today. We cannot even agree that the United States Constitution is a good thing.

A second reason people may feel worse off than in the past goes to another principle laid out by Murray in In Pursuit. If money doesn’t buy happiness, what does? Murray answers with the notion of self-respect. He defines self-respect as the feeling one gets from taking on and fulfilling obligations. We might call it a sense of earned accomplishment. His point is that if you think you are a pawn of outside forces, it’s hard to be happy. Part of being happy is the ability or the perception of the ability to control one’s life to a meaningful degree.

Despite our material affluence, we are losing this liberty to act responsibly. The centralization of government and business and the depersonalization of life through technology give rise to the feeling that our lives are to a significant degree shaped by people we don’t know and forces we cannot see or influence. The libertarian Murray is concerned that “big government” does for people many things they should be doing for themselves, robbing them of self-respect. Also, the growth of the federal government means important decisions are more likely to be made in Washington, DC, often by unelected bureaucrats, rather than in our hometowns and by our city council. Outside of government, we might think of the way the corporate box store has replaced “mom and pop” shops. Sure, things are cheaper at Wal-Mart (which is good) but Wal-Mart doesn’t know or care about me or my community. To corporate America, most of us and our communities are abstract data points. As our lives get less local, they get less personal, and perhaps less happy.

Health care is another good example of the phenomenon. Our care is determined to a significant degree not by ourselves and our doctor, but by insurance companies, government policy, and large hospital networks. It is almost impossible for a doctor to operate outside of a large hospital network due to the crushing paperwork requirements mandated by the government and insurance companies. The health care industry’s primary driver now seems to be maximizing billable procedures, to see as many patients as quickly as possible. Take it from someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with health providers over the last few years: the experience is regularly frustrating and demoralizing. The improvement in results is largely due to advanced science and technology, rarely due to better “care.”

Here is the dark side of globalization. I am willing to concede that globalization has contributed to the overall wealth and health of the world, especially for the poorest among us. But it has also contributed to the sense that our lives are not in our own hands. When a bank sneezes in Indonesia and then my local bank catches cold, that adds to my anxiety over factors that are beyond my control. This is to say nothing of the people and communities decimated because the goods they used to manufacture can be made more cheaply somewhere else. It isn’t just the loss of a job, which is nothing new in history. It’s the notion that a job—perhaps a whole industry—was lost because….one isn’t even quite certain.

“But now we can watch movies in our cars” just doesn’t seem that big of a deal if we are lonely and feel we are pawns of distant forces. Again, we intuitively know that money doesn’t buy happiness. Why do celebrities often end up sad, lonely, and drug-addled? A friend of mine once visited Elvis Pressley’s Graceland mansion. He described it as a monument to Elvis’s boredom. What do you do when you get all the money in the world, you can buy anything you want, and nobody ever says no to you? Indeed, because they are leeching off you they encourage your self-indulgence. Most of us are like Elvis: such a fate seems attractive but is actually a curse. Let’s just say you’d better have great discipline and a very rich interior life if you expect to be happy amid great affluence.

If this is true of individuals, that money doesn’t buy happiness, why can’t it be true of a whole society? Perhaps we can sum it up thusly: What does it profit a man to gain the world yet lose his soul? If America has gained the world but lost its soul, we should be anxious indeed.

Image Credit: Edward Hopper, “Early Sunday Morning,” 1930

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  1. Somewhere Wendell Berry talks about how when things are tallied up in “market thinking” the intangibles are always discounted, which means that the tallying itself tends to favor the material side of things. This would seem to apply to comparing the past and present as well, and is a sign of the “reign of quantity”: things that can be measured are viewed as inherently more valuable than things that cannot. Given the modern notion of “progress” this bias is itself a feature of the very process by which that progress is measured. The present will always be perceived as “better” if those things which can measurably show improvement are automatically given more weight than those things which cannot.

  2. People in past generations made small choices–they preferred the supermarket to a dozen small corner grocers, they preferred the department store to a dozen small retailers, etc., for perfectly understandable reasons!–that have ended up naturally in Walmart and Amazon.
    The real problem is that all power was given to the class of people who benefit from and enjoy this sort of hyper-centralized and consolidated system, and was stolen from those who prefer the sort of lifestyle of small towns and rural areas, so there’s been no brakes on the system, so we’ve ended up where we are today.
    “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” comes to mind…

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