The Frontal Cortex

Studs Terkel

This American Life recently featured an astonishing series of recordings from Hard Times, the radio series created by Studs Terkel. It featured a variety of American voices, from the short order cook in Arkansas to the migrant worker in Texas to the wealthy elite of Manhattan, talking about what it was like to live through the Great Depression. The sheer suffering was astonishing. People talked about hunger and living off oily brown water and stale bread. They described what it was like to have no heat in winter and spend years in the unemployment line. The rich guy was hilariously greedy.

But the most remarkable thing about the oral histories is that, despite the suffering and material deprivation, people didn’t describe the Great depression in depressed terms. In fact, nearly every person described the experience as partly positive, a tough time that the entire country was forced to suffer through together. Their memories seem irrevocably tinged by that sense of community.

So keep this in mind as you’re watching you stock portfolio plummet: happiness isn’t simply a factor of money. (Sure, money makes things easier, and the Easterlin paradox is now being questioned, but the Beatles were right.)

For instance, since 1950, the number of Americans describing themselves as very happy has declined from 7.5 percent to 6 percent. Even more interesting is fact that, as many countries become more prosperous, depression becomes significantly more common. Other studies have found that rates of depression and anxiety are twice as high among upper-class, suburban teens compared to the national norm. Obviously, differing rates of diagnoses play a big part in these statistics, but I’m not sure they explain everything.

The lesson is that affluence isn’t an unqualified good. I’m personally drawn to the work of people like Robert Frank, who argue that part of the problem is conspicuous consumption. When someone wears a Rolex watch, they don’t make themselves happy – they habituate very quickly to the luxury good – but they do manage to raise the material 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.) 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 the “hedonic treadmill” that afflicts people in developed countries. Not only do their reward neurons automatically adapt to their state of wealth, but those same neurons are constantly being bombarded with a new set of expensive expectations. Of course, not everybody can afford a Rolex or a Lexus, which means that we are constantly being disappointed.

While a depression or steep recession is a terrible thing, it does lead to a few less Rolexes. And if the Terkel interviews are any indication, it was that diminished sense of disparity – the fact that everyone was going without – that made the time bearable. This recent Kahneman study in Science made a similar point:

The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient.


  1. #1 Shannon Murphy
    November 21, 2008

    Interesting. Based on this post, I’d like to insist that you read this immediately:

    I promise it’ll be the most thought-provoking thing you’ve read re: the economic crisis.

  2. #2 scott crawford
    November 21, 2008

    Thx. As the Grout quote says, “We are lifted up on two wings; simplicity and purity.” Studs was an amazing listener. And never got in the way of the light.

  3. #3 OftenWrongTed
    November 21, 2008

    “Success isn’t necessary for happiness, happiness is necessary for success”
    John Bogle “Enough”

  4. #4 lee pirozzi
    November 22, 2008

    Surprisingly, although I was ready to be less that enthralled when I took my daughter to see an “American
    Girl Doll Movie”, this summer – I was creatively informed about The Great Depression by this theater trip. As renting rooms in your own house became a necessity for survival, the inevitable combination of characters inhabiting the same space evolved into innovative social interaction and drama. Fun and entertainment were created in the home to assuage the daily suffering. Enthusiasm for enterprise sprouted from children and adults as they shared more roles.

    I rarely see a movie twice as my visual memory is so strong,
    but the feel-good feeling from this one could entice me back for a second view. They accurately recorded the selling of eggs during the depression, and the sadness in the eyes of neighbors as they watched people losing homes and livelihoods.

  5. #5 Seth Finkelstein
    November 23, 2008

    “mearly every person described the experience as partly positive,”

    I question whether this is sampling bias and media packaging. It doesn’t make for appealing entertainment to have a relentlessly miserable story, and people don’t like to tell that. I mean, stories of concentration camps or gulags, which are some of the most horrible places on earth, general have some sort of leavening about friendship and small victories.

    “Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient.”

    Well, there’s certain points where money can’t buy love, and diminishing returns, etc. But on the other hand, there’s definite point where lack of money is very unsatistifying indeed – such a being hungry or homeless.

  6. #6 Mark
    December 10, 2008

    Seems no surprise that simple external objects might have a difficult time eliciting happiness.


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