The 20th century was the American century, but we got progressively less happy as the years rolled along:
The authors also find that over the last century, Americans, both men and women, have gotten steadily–and hugely–less happy. The difference in happiness of men between men of my generation, born in the 1960s, and my father’s generation, born in the 1920s, is the same as the effect of a tenfold difference in income. In other words, if my father had little money compared to his contemporaries and I have lots of money compared to mine, I can still expect to be less happy. Here, curiously, the European pattern diverges. Happiness falls for the birth years from 1900 to about 1950, and generations born on the continent since World War II have gotten successively happier.
Or, as the authors of this economic study put it, “in the United States the well-being of successive birth-cohorts has gradually fallen through time.” In other words, wealth seems to have an inverse relationship with self-reports of happiness, at least once a certain threshold of income has been reached.
What accounts for the misery of the well-off? Here’s a hypothesis: conspicuous consumption. The 20th century witnessed the birth of rampant consumerism. It began with the Sears-Roebuck catalog and eventually became the defining feature of American life. While I love my local shopping mall as much as the next person, I’m pretty convinced that it doesn’t make me happier. The reason is rooted in a basic property of our dopamine-rich reward neurons. When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy–their dopamine neurons have already adapted to the luxury good–but they do manage to raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. (Such luxury items are known as “positional goods,” since part of their appeal is that they signal your social position. This also makes purchasing luxury goods a zero-sum game, since you can only enjoy them only if others don’t.) Multiply this same psychological phenomenon across a full range of consumer products–from clothes to cars, stereos to shoes–and you can begin to see why people in developed countries are so prone to depression. Not only do their dopamine neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expectations. When these expectations aren’t fulfilled–and most people can’t afford a Rolex–our dopamine cells are disappointed, just like monkeys not given juice. We feel the absence of their activity, which makes us sad. As Adam Smith observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Riches leave a man always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow.”
So what’s the solution? Is it possible to step off the hedonic treadmill? The best approach involves silencing our desires, restraining the insatiable appetite of our dopamine neurons. This is what the Amish have done. They have learned to live without modern consumerism. They don’t use cars, reject the Internet, avoid the mall, and prefer a quite permanence to heady growth. The end result is a happiness boom. The Amish turn out to be as satisfied with their lives as members of the Forbes 400. Furthermore, their rates of depression are more than ten fold lower than the rest of the American population. The Amish are content because they have learned to ignore their dopaminergic pleas for more.