Technology and Happiness
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,...
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