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 (at least compared to Europeans), their avid pursuit of entertainment turned media and leisure into multibillion-dollar industries.
By most standards, then, you’d 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’re no happier than they were in 1946 (which is when formal surveys of happiness started). In fact, the percentage of people who say they’re “very happy” has fallen slightly since the early 1970s—even though the income of people born in 1940 has increased, on average, 116 percent over the course of their working lives. Nor is this a uniquely American phenomenon: you can find similar data for most developed countries. Perhaps the most striking example of progress having little impact on what economists call people’s sense of “subjective well-being” is Japan. Between 1960 and the late 1980s, Japan’s economy was utterly transformed, as the nation went from a low-cost supplier of cheap manufactured goods to what is perhaps the world’s most technologically sophisticated society. Over that stretch, the country’s GDP quintupled. And yet by the late 1980s, the Japanese said they were no happier than they had been in 1960.
Even more strikingly, life seems worse for a significant minority of citizens in the rich world. Since the 1950s, reports of major depression have increased tenfold, and while much of that increase undoubtedly represents a new willingness to diagnose mental illness, there’s a general consensus among mental-health experts that it also reflects a real development. People are more anxious, trust government and business less, and get divorced more often. In the 1960s Tom Wolfe confounded those who fretted about the gloominess of American life by insisting that Americans were in the midst of a “happiness explosion.” Forty years later, plenty of people would disagree.
There is, though, one group of Americans that is imperturbably sunny: the Amish. Their depression rates are negligibly low relative to the rest of society’s. Their happiness levels are consistently high. The Pennsylvania Amish, when asked how much they agree with the statement “You are satisfied with your life” (using a scale of 1 to 10), turn out to be as happy as the members of the Forbes 400. The Amish, though, do without most of what we think of as modern technology. They don’t rely on the automobile, don’t need the Internet, and seem to prefer stability and permanence to the heady growth that propels innovation and the U.S. economy. The comparison is a little facile (the Amish have a lot of other characteristics that make people cheerful, including strong community ties, stable families, and religious faith). But it suggests an interesting question: is it possible that technology, instead of liberating us, is holding us back? Is technological progress merely a treadmill, and if so, would we be happier if we stepped off of it?