Some thoughts on Progress

Saturday, March 18th, 2023

We Need to a Vision for One Step Beyond

How can happy people become depressive and suicidal? Some statistics see the world moving towards more peacefulness, more wealth, and more happiness. Other statistics see a rise in mental distress and depressions, particularly in rich countries. (The institutions publishing these figures seem to be professional.) The appararent paradox can perhaps be solved by assuming that many people who say that they are happy do not really know themselves. They have lost their ability to think One Step Beyond.

Progress towards peace

If you don't want to die by human violence, keep away from traditional tribal societies. This, in short, is the advice anthropologist Jared Diamond gives in his best selling book 'The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn From Tribal Societies' (2012). Even taking the two world wars into account it would have been safer to live in belligerent 20th century Germany than with the Dani people in New Guinea. The figures Diamond used to support his claim are conclusive and they hold for traditional societies in general: Western Civilization, with all its ugly crimes and intermittent wars is actually quite peaceful.

Here are some numbers: in 20th century Germany, 16 people out of 10 thousand died in result of war. For the traditional Dani people of New Guinea and the Danki of Sudan, this figure was 100 people out of 10 thousand. This is a difference by a factor of about 6. Bear in mind that Germany had incurred mass bombing in the Second World War with an estimated number of 350 thousand to 500 thousand casualites. Estimates for dead soldiers range around 4,3 million. Yet killing one another with arrows and clubs is 6 times as mortal as modern conventional (non nuclear) industrial warfare.

Progress in the social sphere

Some other fields don't need statistics to see advances. No one in a modern Western society needs to fear painful tooth surgery. Families today don't have to rear four children to have one living heir. Burning witches is a thing of the past and so are fleas and once dreaded epidemics of cholera. Also, cruder forms of injustice are history. Working ten hours a day, including Saturdays, was abandoned together with child work some time the in the 19th or early 20th century. Read Charles Dickens' book Hard Times or Jack Londons' The Abyss to get a feeling for the hardships of the past. Or view the pictures Lewis Hines took in US factories of during the early decades of the 20th century. A classic is barefooted girls aged ten working on spinning machines 10 hours a day. One could make a long list of material things and social circumstances that today are much better than they were in the past. Let's return to some figures to make this point more clear.

Progress towards affluence

"In 1957, average earnings for year-round, full time workers over the age of 14 was $4713 for men and $3008 for women." So says the Occupational Outlook Handbook. In that year, pound (American) of round steak New York cost you 96 US cents. This information is from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics on retail food prices by cities. For the year 2020 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that the "median weekly earnings were $891 for all women age 16 and older. For men age 16 and older, median weekly earnings were $1,082." Multiplying this by 52 gives the annual figures: $ 56264 annual earning for men and $46332 annual earnings for women. One pound of round steak in 2020 cost an average of 634 cents in the US.

Bear in mind that on top of the doubling of round steaks, average US earning in 2020 also covered things that didn't exist in 1957 such as cell phones, streaming movies, personal computers, regular transatlantic jet flights (first introduced in 1958), Aerobics, or scuba diving.

Although life in 1957 offered far less material wealth than today, John Kenneth Galbraith could write a best selling book titled 'The Affluent Society' in 1958. Progress was in the air. German sociologist Herbert Marcuse, then living in the US pointed out that modern industrial societies possessed all the material necessities to create a Utopian society.

Progress towards gender equality

Looking once again at the average earnings cited above, we find that in 1957 male full time workers earned 1,6 times as much as women on full time jobs. By the year 2020, this ratio had dropped to 1,2. Full equality needs a ration of 1,0. So things here seem to be on the right track, too.

People are getting happier over the decades

If we look at statistics covering the decades starting from around the 1970ies experienced happiness seems to reflect material well-being. The World Value Survey finds that people saying that they are rather happy or very happy went up from less than 50 % to more than 80 % in Zimbabwe from the early 1990ies to about 2014. In Russia, the rise was from less than 50 % to just above 70 %. Sweden meanders around 90 %. The Eurobarometer goes back to the 1970ies and seems to confirm the trend. Interestingly enough, there is a close correlation between major economics ups and downs and happines. During a devastating financial crisis, happiness in Greece fell from 64 % to 32 %. The data seems to show that people, in general, honor their material wealth.

Some contradictory figures

"Stress among the world's workers reached an all-time high -- again" this is a direct quote from the Gallup website introducing their 'State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report'. The website goes on that "working women in the U.S. and Canada region were among the most stressed employees globally" Note here that high stress seems to be a) linked to highly productive economies and b) that women - not men - are noted.

"Globally, seven in 10 people report that they are struggling or suffering" and "the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 41.5% of U.S. adults exhibited symptoms of anxiety or depression in early 2021." More specifically: 'Deaths of despair' is the title of a book by Princeton economists Anne Case and Nobel laureate Sir Angus Deaton . The key message is that suicides and deaths caused by fatal behaviosrs such as drug overdoses and liver failure from chronic alcohol consumption have increased dramatically since the mid-1990s, from about 65,000 in 1995 to 158,000 in 2018. The symptoms are most marked among males in the American heartland.

People may say that they are happy in statistical surveys. But I don't believe they really are. Here is a simple thought experiment. How would you answer if you were asked whether you were a) not happy at all, b) fairly happy, or c) not happy at all? If I put that question to myself the thought processes triggered by the question are more revealing than the answer. There are different voices inside my head. Curiously, they all point in a very similiar direction. One voice says that materially speaking, I have no grounds for misery. Another voice says that given the circumstances (Covid pandemic, worldwide wars, natural disasters) I am not really affected and therefore should be happy. The common note to all these voices is the operative word "should". I feel that I should be happy and that calling myself unhappy would be unfair to people who suffer real hardships. Even is asked anonymously, the feeling of shame to call myself myself would probably make me tick "fairly happy" or "very happy" in any questionnaire. But the answer would be a self-deception. I am not happy.

A reliable indicator for widespread dissatisfaction are the recurring successes of so called protest parties. Such parties do not usually convince with strategies for solving complex problems or any past record of successes. They are, however, very good at voicing common complaints. Listen to their voices. Last Wednesday, the BoerBurgerBeweging in the Netherlands won a landslide victory for the Upper House. I read the party election agenda in full. As one would expect, unjustly high prices were mentioned more than once. Also, the European is branded as a rule-addicted ballast (regelzuchtige ballast in Dutch). Lower prices and more sovereignty for the Netherlands were two prominent demands. Curiously, rising sea levels were not mentioned once. This is remarkable for a country where most of the people live below the sea-levels, some ares as much as 5 metres or more. What was also mentioned more than once was how little the current ruling parties understand the common people and their daily problems. There is a lot of dissatisfaction in one of the richest, safest and most tolerant country in the world. As in the US of the Trump ear, economic wealth seems to go hand in hand with deep feelings of neglect or unhappiness. This I find difficult to understand.

The diagnosis is not limited to statistics and politics. When I meet friends or relatives, dissatisfaction often makes up much of the talking. Popular complaints are high prices, difficult colleagues, too many foreigners in the country, aloof politicians and lax laws. A vague feeling that no one ever does anything about an obviously poor state of affairs seems to be the emotional soil of the more specific complaints blossoming. What I miss is any visionary outlook, any interest in a more cosmic view of things, anything creative, inspiring or searching. Simply listening to the lament or adding own instances will help to upkeep a harmonious feeling of togetherness and mutual understanding. Arguing otherwise will produce opposition and spoil harmony. My best guess is that there are some deeper sources of unhappiness that people find hard to voice but which are persistent and possibly also quite rightful. To solve the paradox, these wishes must be immune to mere material wealth. In other words: material well-being may be a necessary prerequisite for happiness, but it is not sufficient. There are more wishes that want fulfilment. Let's take up this scent and follow the trail.

Maslovs Pyramid and Postmaterialism

In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow in a scientific paper called "A Theory of Human Motivation" drew an image that got stuck: a pyramid of ascending human needs. At the bottom there were physiological needs like food, warmth and shelter from rain. One level up there were safety needs, and from there upwards belonging and love, social needs or esteem, self-actualization and transcendence. The two lowest needs can be grouped togehter as material. All other needs we can then call postmaterial. In sociology the word postmaterial stands for values and wishes that go beyond mere material well-being. The word was made popular by political scientist Ronald Ingleheart in his 1977 book 'The Silent Revolution'. Now comes the interesting bit: what happens to people who have sufficiently satisfied their material needs and want to climb the pyramid upwards towards higher levels of fuflilment?

The thesis I want to put forward here is that many people in developed countries in general acknowledge that they have climbed the first two levels (i. e. material needs). That is why they truthfully answer with yes when asked whether they considered themselves happy. But, to follow Maslovs theory, once you have reached that level, you are urgend to move upwards. You begin to seek belongingness, love, esteem, actualization and transcendence. But whereas modern societes are expert at fulfilling material needs, they are curiously helpless to offer anything higher up the pyramid. Everything is tinged with commercialism, looks fake and fails to convince. And that is why statistics on alcoholism, anti-depressives and depressions are pointing upwards. That is part one of my thesis.

Part two of my thesis is that some postmaterial needs are perhaps impossible to satisfy given our present socioeconomic arrangements, but they are in principle realistic if we are open enough for social experiments. But there are also some needs that are impossible to satisfy given the design of the cosmos that we live in. Let us look at these two groups of postmaterialistic needs in turn.

Post-Material-Wish Number 1: the Need to Feel Useful

Psychoneuroimmunology - what a word! - is a branch of research looking at the close relationship between mental health and physical health. The relationship seems to be very close. One persistent finding is that our relative position in the social hierarchy, or perhaps our position in the social world without any idea of a ranking, plays a very important role. In Japan, there companies face cultural barriers to sack employees. Instead of firing unwanted people they give them a pleasant sport at window, keep up their salary and otherwise bar them from any active work within the company. The phenomenon is called Madogiwazoku. Although these people further enjoy all their material privileges as before, they are more likely, so the story goes, to become ill. At any rate, they are not really happy anymore. Psychoneuroimmunology seems to produce some hard evidence that being needed is very important for our well-being. Anecdotal personal observations seem to underpin this point. People I know who had lost their job told of depressive phases and a strong tendency towards drinking even though they had lived a modest life before that was not immediately threatened by the loss of their job. So here we have culprit number 1 for causing depressions in otherwise well-off people: the unfulfilled need to feel useful.

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