Flunking Sainthood

Bradley Wright proffers a cup of good cheer.

With riots in London, a nosedive in the stock market, and Michelle Bachmann dominating the airwaves, it’s hard to believe that the world is actually getting better. In fact, declension seems all but assured.

Yet continuous improvement is the thesis of Bradley Wright’s relentlessly sunny new book Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World (Bethany House). Here are some facts to cheer you about life in America today:

  • Violent crime has dropped steadily in the U.S. since 1990. (We’re having fewer kids, and fewer kids means fewer teenagers, and fewer teenagers means fewer criminals. Or so goes the theory.)
  • Fatal motor vehicle accidents are becoming rarer all the time due to improved automotive safety features and new laws requiring people to buckle up.
  • The real price of most goods has dropped over time, including food, air travel, electronics, and cars. (Notable exception: a college education. Ouch.)
  • Life expectancy is up to about 78 years, on average.
  • We are working fewer hours and getting paid more for them. (I’ll take issue with the “fewer hours” claim in a moment.)

In sum, “people in the middle class in the United States live better than 99.4% of all human beings who have ever existed.”

Wright’s book employs an army of statistics to demonstrate that Americans are living longer, enjoying better health and more luxury, and have more disposable income than ever before. So why don’t we feel better?

One of the flaws of Wright’s otherwise interesting book is that he never builds a convincing case for why so many Americans are popping Xanax when their lives are allegedly so much better than their great-grandparents’.

Late last year I reviewed the book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, which was far from a perfect read but did make a strong case for why some people are happier than others. The secret is found in our social lives. In a nutshell, people who report the greatest levels of happiness (and, not coincidentally, who live the longest) are enmeshed in networks of family and friends.

And this is where Americans today fall far short of our great-grandparents. By nearly every measure, we are indeed bowling alone:

  • We choose careers that take us far from our places of origin and our families, when research shows that those longstanding networks are not easily replaceable in the transient lifestyles we embrace.
  • We are often removed from the outdoors, when being in nature ranks as one element that consistently contributes to a happy life.
  • We don’t involve ourselves in the community nearly as much as our ancestors did. What contributes to happiness, according to Thrive, are social clubs and regular interactions, whether it’s meeting the same people every Friday for lunch or being part of a bicycle group and a book club.
  • We get married later or not at all. Buettner’s research shows that the happiest people are those who get married and stay married, which flies in the face of our culture’s idealization of the swinging single.
  • We no longer design our cities in ways that maximize happiness and socialization. In today’s planning we have subdivisions with no sidewalks. (!) We worship the car and design our public spaces so that you almost have to own one. We don’t see the value in city parks, public transportation, or bicycle paths, even though people who have access to these things report themselves happier than people who don’t.
  • We work too hard. I know that Wright disputes this, and perhaps he’s correct that Americans don’t work as many hours as they used to. However, that doesn’t mean we’re not working too much overall—and that our sense of being always “on the job” has not been exacerbated by smartphones and laptops that make work available to many of us wherever we go.

In short, Wright’s book is a solid start. It’s heavy on the numbers but light on the reasons why people are still not as happy as they used to be—a question that merits considerable analysis.

Note: This review is part of a Patheos Roundtable of book reviews for Upside. Click here for other opinions on the book by Tony Jones, Joel Best and others.

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