In the 20th century, Americans, Europeans, and East Asians enjoyed material and technological advances that were unimaginable in previous eras. In the United States, for example, gross domestic product per capita tripled from 1950 to 2000. Life expectancy soared. The boom in productivity after World War II made goods better and cheaper at the same time. Things that were once luxuries, such as jet travel and long-distance phone calls, became necessities. And even though Americans seemed to work extraordinarily hard, their pursuit of entertainment turned media and leisure into multibillion-dollar industries.
By most standards, then, you would have to say that Americans are better off now than they were in the middle of the last century. Oddly, though, if you ask Americans how happy they are, you find that they are no happier than they were in 1964(which is when formal surveys of happiness started). In fact, the percentage of people who say they are “very happy” has fallen slightly since the early 1970s – even the income of people born in 1940 has, on average, increased by 116 percent over the course of their working lives.
You can find similar data for most developed countries. The relationship between happiness and technology has been an eternal subject for social critics and philosophers since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. But it’s been left largely unexamined by economists and social scientists. The truly groundbreaking work on the relationship between prosperity and well-being was done by the economist Richard Easterlin, who in 1974 wrote a famous paper entitled “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?
” Easterlin showed that when in came to developed countries, there was no real correlation between a nation’s income level and its citizens’ happiness. Money, Easterlin argued, could not buy happiness – at least not after a certain point. Easterlin showed that through poverty was solidly middle-class, getting wealthier did not seem to make its citizens any happier. This seems to be close to a universal phenomenon. In fact, one of happiness scholars’ most important insights is that people adapt very quickly to good news. Take lottery winners for example.
One famous study showed that although winners were very, very happy when they won, their extreme excitement quickly evaporated, and after a while their moods and sense of well-being were indistinguishable from what they had been before the victory. So, too, with technology: no matter how dramatic a new innovation is, no matter how much easier it makes our lives, it is very easy to take it for granted. You can see this principle at work in the world of technology every day, as things that once seemed so miraculous soon became common and, worse, frustrating when they don’t work perfectly.
It’s hard, it turns our, to keep in mind what things were like before the new technology came long. Does our fast assimilation of technological progress mean, then, that technology makes no difference? No. It just makes the question of technology’s impact, for good or ill, more complicated. Let’s start with the downside. There are certain ways in which technology makes life obviously worse. Telemarketing, traffic jams, and identify theft all come to mind. These are all phenomena that make people consciously unhappy. Does our fast assimilation(??
)of technological progress mean, then, that technology makes no difference? No. It just makes the question of technology’s impact, for good or ill, more complicated. Let’s start with the downside. There are certain ways in which technology makes life obviously worse. Telemarketing, traffic jams, and identity theft all come to mind. These are all phenomena that make people consciously unhappy. But for the most part, modern critiques(?? )of technology have focused not so much on specific, bad technologies as the impact of technology on our human relationships.
Privacy has become increasingly fragile(??? )in a world of linked databases. In many workplaces, technologies like keystroke monitoring and full recording of phone calls make it easier to watch workers. The notion that technology disrupts relationships and fractures community gained mainstream prominence as an attack on television. Some even say that TV is chiefly responsible for the gradual isolation of Americans from each other. Similarly, the harmful effects of the Internet, which supposedly further isolates people from what is often called “the real world”.
This broad criticism of technology’s impact on relationships is an interesting one and is especially relevant to the question of happiness, because one of the few things we can say for certain is that the more friends and the closer relationships people have, the happier they tend to be. Today, technological change is so rapid that when you buy something, you do so knowing that in a few months there’s going to be a better, faster version for the product, and that you’re going to be stuck with the old one. Someone else, in other words, has it better.
It’s as if disappointment were built into acquisition from the very beginning. Daily stress, an annoying sense of disappointment, fear that the government knows a lot more about you than you would like it to – these are obviously some of the ways in which technology reduces people’s sense of well-being. But the most important impact of technology on people’s sense of well-being is in the field of health care. Before the Industrial Revolution, two out of every three Europeans died before the age of 30. Today, life expectancy for women in Western Europe is almost 80 years, and it continues to increase.
The point is obvious: the vast majority of people are happy to be alive, and the more time they get on earth, the better off they feel they’ll be. But until very recently, life for the vast majority of people was nasty(??? ),rough, and short. Technology has changed that, at least for people in the rich world. As much as we should worry about the rising cost of health care and the problem of the uninsured, it’s also worth remembering how valuable for our spirits as well as our bodies the benefits that medical technology has brought us.
On a deeper level, what the technological improvement of our health and our longevity(?? )emphasizes is a paradox(??????? ) of any discussion of happiness on a national or a global level: Even though people may not be happier, even they are wealthier and posses more technology, they’re still as hungry as ever for more time. It’s like that old joke: the food may not be so great, but we want the portions to be as big as possible.