A Paradox of Progress: Stepped-Up Stress

Gregg Easterbrook's new book is "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" (Random House).

By practically every objective measure, American life has been getting better for decades.

Standards of living keep rising, with the typical house now more than twice as large as a generation ago; middle-class income keeps rising, though more slowly than income at the very top; more Americans graduate from college every year; longevity keeps rising; almost all forms of disease, including most cancers, are in decline; crime has dropped spectacularly; pollution, except for greenhouse gases, are in long-term decline; discrimination is down substantially. Yet despite all these positive indicators, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not increased since the early 1950s, while incidence of depression keeps rising -- and was doing so long before the morning of Sept. 11.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 18, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 18, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 15 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Stress -- A Feb. 23 commentary incorrectly stated that the amygdala secreted a hormone called cortisol. The amygdala signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol.

This is the progress paradox: Life gets better while people feel worse. Many explanations suggest themselves. One is the depressing effect of excess materialism, which I call “the revenge of the credit card.” Another is fear that Western society will break down, which might be called “collapse anxiety.” A third is the uneasy feeling that accompanies actually getting what you dreamed of. Today, tens of millions of Americans have things their parents or grandparents could only dream of -- nice houses, college educations. Though that is obviously good, Americans are finding that merely possessing the good life does not ensure happiness. This may tell us there is a “revolution of satisfied expectations” -- that general prosperity brings with it an empty feeling.


Here is another possible explanation of the progress paradox: that along with getting better at manufacturing cellphones, DVD players and SUVs, society gets ever better at manufacturing stress.

Stress is hardly a new phenomenon. To have been a pioneer prairie farmer in the 1800s, cracking hard soil with a hand plow; to have been a seamstress working 14-hour days for starvation wages in a sweatshop in the 1800s; these and many other past life circumstances were surely stressful. But the contemporary increase in stress is not in your mind; researchers believe Americans suffer from ever-higher levels of nervous tension. Higher stress, in turn, may be offsetting our appreciation of a better life.

Consider, first, that nature designed us to experience stress. “Stress is inevitable and not necessarily bad,” says Bruce McEwen, a researcher at Rockefeller University in New York and a leading authority on the biology of stress. In reaction to noise, sudden movements or perceived dangers, an area of the brain called the amygdala secretes a hormone called cortisol that engenders stress. Stress hormones heighten the awareness of surroundings, while slightly improving vision and hearing.

Researchers believe the stress response evolved in mammals because stress decreases the odds of being caught and eaten by something. Today, the stress response is no less important as an evolutionary “adaptation” than it was in the era of saber-toothed tigers. Drive at 75 mph with other vehicles only a car-length away, and you’d better have heightened awareness of sudden small movements.

Stress is also a coping mechanism for the demands of life. At the workplace or at school, the stress response helps people be on guard regarding problems, and helps them work harder. Studies show that successful or high-income individuals tend to have more cortisol pumping through their systems. (Whether the pressures of their positions cause the stress or the stress-response helps them attain their positions is not known.)

However, research also shows that those who enjoy career success and exhibit stress symptoms are twice as likely as the population at large to describe themselves as “very unhappy.” That the stressed-out are likely to be unhappy is a warning sign, because stress, measured either by emotional state or by cortisol levels, is rising in American society. One reason is that the media get ever better at presenting us with information to worry about.

The 1800s prairie farmer would have fretted a great deal about the weather and the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon, but he would have known hardly anything about crimes in distant cities or angry chanting mobs in other nations. Today, everyone gets minute-by-minute readouts of killings, natural disasters and social unrest the world over. Even as most things get better for most people, there are ever more entries on the list of worries, activating more stress.

The contemporary lifestyle also fosters stress. Americans now spend an average of almost an hour per day in the car, and being stuck in traffic is stressful compared to walking, which can be relaxing and pleasant. A century ago the typical American walked three miles a day; today it’s well less than a quarter of a mile. Ever-decreasing physical exertion coupled with ever more calories means that, today, the typical American is overweight. Stress and weight are related, as overweight people have a higher proportion of cortisol in their bodies than the lean.

The national decline in sleep is another factor in rising stress. Cortisol production stops during sleep; one of fundamental reasons that mammals sleep may be to give their bodies a break from stress hormones. Researchers believe 10 hours of sleep nightly was the norm for most of human history. By a generation ago, the U.S. average had fallen to eight hours per night; the average is now seven hours and still falling.

We don’t sleep well, either, owing to bad habits such as eating or watching TV just before bed. Those who watch TV until lights-out often experience interrupted sleep, researchers say, whereas our ancestors, who read or knitted before bed, slept more soundly.

What can we do to reduce stress? First are short-term lifestyle changes. Cut calories; engage in 30 minutes of physical activity daily; turn off the television at least an hour before bedtime.

Long-term goals should be more ambitious. Society needs to find ways to make society less of a rat race; to render the economy less tumultuous and ease job anxiety; to slow the hectic pace of existence so that we can step back and appreciate our own lives. If living standards and stress continue rising in sync, we’ll endlessly be better off but not happier.