Psychological Well-being and Societal Progress

Some people think that history, or at least history since the enlightenment, can be characterized as a process of consistent long run improvement even if there have been occasional bumps on the road. This is sometimes called a Whig view of history and is probably most famously championed today by Steven Pinker.

Pinker and people like him often point to massive improvements in economic and technological conditions to justify this view. They often share charts showing national trends like the following:

Pinker - Appliances

Pinker (2019)

Pinker - Extreme Poverty

Pinker (2019)

They also sometimes talk about how Western societies have greatly expanded the legal rights enjoyed by various minority groups and have adopted generally egalitarian social norms in a politically democratic context.

Democracy Over Time

Desiliver (2019)

There are many problems with this narrative. The one I’m going to focus on in this post concerns psychological well being. Many of the proposed improvements of the last century or so, technology, wages, political rights, etc., don’t have much obvious value aside from their potential to improve people’s psychological well being. If the fact that we now have running water and electricity and computers and smart phones and the ability to participate in democratic elections in which nearly all adults can vote (etc) hasn’t made us any happier then it isn’t obvious that they are of much value.

If we do think that these things have increased our psychological well being, we might expect that Western countries would have generally seen positive trends in mental well being across the 20th century as all of them went through this process of progress.

My own view is that some of these things improved life but others have had a strong negative effect such that the net impact of “progress” has been somewhere between neutral and modestly negative on average though this has varied somewhat by country.  Moreover, the impact has not been equal across age groups. The impact on the lives of old people has been largely positive while the impact on younger people (e.g. under 45) has probably been largely negative.

To substantiate this conclusion, I’m going to review data on rates of suicide, depression, and general happiness, below. Some might argue that national trends in these metrics is a very crude way of assessing the impacts of a basket of different societal changes. This may be true, but assessing national trends in wellbeing is surely nonetheless adequate as a response to people pushing a pinker-esk view of history on the basis of national trends in other variables.

To be clear, I am not saying, as right wingers sometimes do, that we are living in an era of unprecedented mental suffering. That conclusion is simply not supported by the data.

Still, especially given the enormous effort which was put in to achieving this “progress”, and the opportunity cost of these endeavors, I think anything other than a clearly positive evaluation of progress’s impact on mental well-being justifies a good deal of skepticism towards the last century and the ideologies which centered political life around further this progress.

Moreover, because it seems implausible to suggest that thinks like running water and modern medicine haven’t had a significant positive impact on wellbeing, it seems likely that if progress as a whole has not had a significant positive impact then the basket of things which we call “progress” must contain elements which are at least as negative in their impact as, running water, and modern medicine, were positive in theirs. If true, it seems clearly important that we identify whatever these cancerous elements of ‘progress” are and begin the process of removing them. For these reasons, I think even a conclusion like “the net impact of progress has been neutral or slightly negative” has quite significant political implications.

With that said, let’s turn to the data.

Rates of Suicide

Let’s begin with suicide rates. In the United States, suicide rates declined in the early 20th century, were fairly stable between the 1950s and 1980s, then fell to a low point in the late 1990s and have since risen back to levels not seen since the great depression.

Suide Way Back

Using Google’s Public Data Explorer, we can see that, relative to 1960, suicide rates have fallen in Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, but have risen in Canada, and Ireland, and have been fairly stable in Norway, Finland, The Netherlands, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Iceland.

Many Suicides

Breaking this data down by age reveals that the 20th century saw sharp declines in the suicide rates of old Americans, relative stability among the middle aged, and a nearly three factor increase in suicide rates among adolescents and young adults.

Suidice by Age

Cutler and Meara (2001)

As we’ve seen, in the 21st century the overall suicide rate in the US has risen. This is in part because, unlike in the 20th century, suicide rates are now rising among all groups under the age of 75, not just young people.

Females:

Figure 2 shows rates for suicide deaths among females by age group for 1999 and 2017, from age group 10 to 14 years through age group 75 and over.

CDC (2018)

Males:

Figure 3 shows the rates for suicide deaths among males by age group for 1999 and 2017, from age group 10 to 14 years through age group 75 and over.

CDC (2018)

We can combine data sets to the compare suicide rates be age that were present in 1900 to those in 2017. Unfortunately, the age groups used in modern suicide statistics are not the same as those used in the past, and the CDC seems to release these numbers segregated by sex now. Still, we can average across sexes for a rough estimate and some of the age groups have not been changed. Doing so, it appears as if the suicide rate of Americans under 50 is probably higher today than it was in 1900. For Americans under 44, this is clearly the case.

Age Group 2017 1900
15 – 24 14.25 7
25 – 44 17.65 14
45 – 64 19.9 20 (45 – 54) and 24 (45 – 54)
65 – 74 16.2 26 (65+)
75+ 21.85

Turning away from America, between 1923 and 2001 a similar pattern played out in New Zealand.

Suicide rates by age, New Zealand 1923–2003. Source: New Zealand Health Information Service.

Shahtahmasebi (2013)

From 1955 to 1994, the same occurred in France (though not the former FRG):

Table 1

Haudidier (2005)

And between 1987 and 2012 the same occurred in Japan:

Male suicide rates in Japan by age, 1987-2012.

Takeshima (2014)

Brazil exhibited the same pattern between 1980 and 2000:

Brazil

Mello-Santos (2004)

In England, sex segregated data suggests that the suicide rate of people under the age of 35 was roughly the same in 2007 and 1863 while suicide has fallen among people who are older.

 

England - Female Suicide by Age

Thomas et al. (2010)

England - Male Suicide by Age

Thomas et al. (2010)

Between 1964 and 2000, suicide rates for those under the age of 35 increased in Australia, but they have since fallen back to what they were in the 1960s.

Australia

Kolves et al. (2013)

Finally, between 1980 and 2009 suicide rates generally fell in Scandinavia, but this was either less true or untrue of young people depending on the country.

Scandanavia Age All

Titelman et al. (2013)

Thus, in the 20th century there was a good deal of diversity in national trends in suicide rates across western countries, but there’s more consistently been a lack of improvement in the suicide rates of young people.

Depression

Turning to self reported rates of depression, between 1905 and the late 80’s, the probability of an American experiencing depression at some point in life increased significantly for every age group.

Klerman

Klerman (1989)

Research on more recent trends in depression among the general population is contradictory, with some data indicating that not much has changed and other sources suggesting that there’s been a rise in depression rates.

Weinberger - Depression

Weinberger et al. (2018)

Depression - US

Body et al. (2018)

World Data - Depression

Ritchie et al. (2018)

Contemporary research more consistently shows there’s been a fairly large increase in depression among adolescents and young adults:

Weinberger - Depression by Age

Weinberger et al. (2018)

Twenge - Depression by Age

Twenge et al. (2019)

Even studies that don’t find an increase in the rate at which young people say they are depressed find increases in symptoms of depression like feeling overwhelmed, experiencing more negative emotions than usual, etc.

Twenge - 2014 - 2

Twenge (2014)

Twenge - 2014 - 3

Twenge (2014)

On such measures of depressive symptoms, the mean score of Americans in college and high-school increased by roughly 0.70 SD between 1932 and 2007, a very large change (Twenge et al., 2010)

In Germany and England, rates of depression have been stable for the last few decades.

Schurmann - Depression

Schurmann et al. (2018)

German Depression

Bretschneider et al. (2018)

However, mirroring what was seen in America, in England rates of depression among young people rose between 1986 and 2006.

English Teen Depression 1

(Collishaw et al. 2010)

English Teen Depression 2

(Collishaw et al. 2010)

In Canada, a county-wide study has documented a slight increase in total depression rates between 1952 and 1992 which masks a fall in suicide rates among those over 45 and a rise in suicide rates among those over 45.

Canada Depression 2

(Murphy et al., 2004)

In Norway, rates of depression increased dramatically between 1930 and 1991 and this was disproportionately due to a rise in depression among those under the age of 60.

Norway Depression 1

(Sandanger et al., 1999)

Depression rates in Finland have also been rising at least among the young.

Finland Youth Depression

(Filatova et al. 2019)

In Denmark, rates of depression nearly doubled between 1995 and 2010 and this was largely due to increased rates of depression among those under the age of 40.

Denmark Depression 1

(Jensen et al. 2016)

Denmark Depression 2

(Jensen et al. 2016)

Contrary to these trends, a county-level study in Sweden found that depression rates slightly fell between 1947 and 1997 with this decrease occurring the least among those under the age of 40.

Sweden Depression 2Sweden Depression 3

(Mattisson et al. 2005)

Thus, long term data in Norway, Denmark, Canada, and America suggest that depression rates have risen in these places. England and Germany have had stable overall depression rates while depression among the young rose. Sweden may have seen a decrease in depression but is based on data from a single county and even there this was least true of young people.

Self Reported Happiness and Life Satisfaction

Let’s now turn to surveys which ask people whether they are happy, or satisfied, with their lives. Such polling indicates that the number of people saying they are satisfied with their lives has increased in the EU from around 77% in the early 70s to around 81% today. While positive, this change is minor and the direction and size of change is very dependent upon the exact years chosen for the stop and end point. On the whole, it isn’t obvious that there has been any significant trend in the EU.

Of course, there is a diversity of trajectories contained within the EU. For instance, the proportion of people satisfied with their lives seems to have increased by about 8 points in the UK and Germany between 2000 and 2016. But even in the UK and Germany, there was no discernible trend between 1973 and 2000.

European Life Satisfaction

Ospina et al. (2017)

In the United States, self reported happiness is slightly lower today than it was in 1949, but it was higher than it was in 1949 as recently as 2008. There hasn’t been much of a trend one way or the other.

Line chart. Americans’ reports of personal happiness since 1948; currently 86% are happy.

Line chart. Americans’ reports of personal happiness since 1948, currently 44% “fairly happy” and 42% “very happy.”

McCarthy (2020)

Among US high-school students, neither life satisfaction nor happiness significantly changed between 1976 and 2006.

American Happiness

Trzesniewski et al. (2010)

Upon seeing this evidence, we might think that suicide and depression rates may measure the proportion of people past a certain threshold of negative feeling and that the variance in happiness might increase without the mean decreasing or even with the mean increasing and we’d still see an increase in depression and suicide rates. This explanation is not supported by the data. Over the last 50 years, the variance in happiness has decreased across the West (Ospina et al. 2017).

We might also worry that these sorts of self report measures might suffer from a “reference group effect”. That is, when people are asked how happy or depressed they are, or how often they feel a certain way, they may respond not with their absolute degree of happiness or depression in mind but, rather, according to their happiness/depression level relative to some reference group such as the society they live in, or the one they grew up in, or the people they personally know. If this is so, the mean degree of self reported happiness/depression won’t change much across time even if the absolute degree of happiness is changing quite a lot. This might explain the surprising degree of stability in self reported happiness across the decades. Or it might not. It seems less likely that this explains the trajectories seen in depression rates.

We may further worry that the rate of deaths by suicide will have decrease with time due to the increased speed of medical responses and our improved ability to keep people alive once they are in medical care and this could mask an increase in negative feeling that is taking place.

Conclusion

Other concerns could be generated. This data is far from perfect. But no source of data justifies the view that the progress of the last hundred years had a significant positive impact on psychological well being. And as I’ve already argued, I think this conclusion really does have some quite significant political implications. Drawing out those implications in detail requires a theory of why progress hasn’t improved mental well-being, an explanation which identifies what the hugely negative elements of progress have been. That is beyond the scope of this post, which merely sought to show that such an explanation is in fact needed.

17 thoughts on “Psychological Well-being and Societal Progress

  1. If you need any ideas for stuff to look into, probably the next best thing to cover for the authoritarian view of knowledge thingy would be the more quantitative stuff that is possible to be said about the legacy media. I have some ideas for stuff to say about it, but anything you can dig up would also be appreciated.

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  2. (Comment divided into multiple parts due to length)

    Some people think that history, or at least history since the enlightenment, can be characterized as a process of consistent long run improvement even if there have been occasional bumps on the road. This is sometimes called a Whig view of history and is probably most famously championed today by Steven Pinker.

    Pinker and people like him often point to massive improvements in economic and technological conditions to justify this view. They often share charts showing national trends like the following…

    There are many problems with this narrative. The one I’m going to focus on in this post concerns psychological well being.

    It’s fine if you disagree with Pinker’s weltanschauung, but the passage quoted above makes it sound like psychological well-being is a subject he completely ignored in Enlightenment Now. In fact, an entire chapter of the relevant book (Chapter 18: Happiness) is devoted to the subject, and indeed discusses/cites quite a few of the studies mentioned in this post. I’m not an expert on this field of research by any means, but based on comparing the evidence and arguments in this post and EN, I’m provisionally convinced that Pinker is correct here. I’ll first address the more concrete empirical issues of suicides, depression/mental illness and life satisfaction, and maybe later discuss the more ethereal and speculative but important philosophical issues that are raised here.

    As a preliminary, if readers interested in this subject can’t/don’t want to read the relevant sections of the book, they should consult the relevant Our World in Data articles on Happiness and Life Satisfaction, Suicide and Mental Health, which cover some of the same ground. (Not including the links because doing so can trigger spam filters.)

    (I) Suicides

    For reasons we’ll get to shortly, I actually don’t think suicides, and particularly fluctuations in suicide rates, are the most important/reliable metric of societal “happiness/well-being,” but since they were the first line of evidence introduced in the OP I’ll discuss them first. I basically agree with the review of the evidence in this section (or at least it’s mostly consistent with what’s presented in EN and at OWID). I would disagree somewhat, however, with the interpretation. On the reliability of suicide rates as an index of overall unhappiness, Pinker writes:

    Suicide, one might think, is the most reliable measure of societal unhappiness, in the same way that homicide is the most reliable measure of societal conflict. A person who has died by suicide must have suffered from unhappiness so severe that he or she decided that a permanent end to consciousness was preferable to enduring it. Also, suicides can be tabulated objectively in a way that the experience of unhappiness cannot.

    But in practice, suicide rates are often inscrutable. The very sadness and agitation from which suicide would be a release also addles a person’s judgment, so what ought to be the ultimate existential decision often hinges on the mundane matter of how easy it is to carry out the act. Dorothy Parker’s macabre poem “Resumé” (which ends,“Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live”) is disconcertingly close to the mindset of a person contemplating suicide. A country’s suicide rate can soar or plummet when a convenient and effective method is widely available or taken away, such as coal gas in England in the first half of the 20th century, pesticides in many developing countries, and guns in the United States.52 Suicides increase during economic downturns and political turmoil, not surprisingly, but they are also affected by the weather and the number of daylight hours, and they increase when the media normalize or romanticize recent instances.53 Even the innocuous idea that suicide is an assay for unhappiness may be questioned. A recent study documented a “happiness-suicide paradox” in which happier American states and happier Western countries have slightly higher, rather than lower, suicide rates.54 (The researchers speculate that misery loves company: a personal setback is more painful when everyone around you is happy.) Suicide rates can be capricious for yet another reason. Suicides are often hard to distinguish from accidents (particularly when the cause is a poisoning or drug overdose, but also when it is a fall, a car crash, or a gunshot), and coroners may tilt their classifications in times and places in which suicide is stigmatized or criminalized.

    So, I think Pinker provides some reasonable grounds for skepticism towards automatically assuming that suicide rates, given their complex and capricious causes, can be used as a reliable proxy for overall societal well-being. Consider e.g. the gender disparity in suicide rates, which is, according to OWID, globally about 2:1 male:female. That definitely says something about differences between men and women, but I don’t think it would be a logical inference to conclude from that that men generally are living lives that are 2x worse than those of women. The statistics cited by Pinker in the following discussion are basically consonant with the ones in OP, the difference is in the interpretation, which I’ll elucidate later since the case is clearest when all three lines of cited evidence have been considered.

    So, Pinker and I would agree that suicide rates have not, as far as the data we have suggests, seen the kind of massive global improvements that things like life expectancy, literacy and per capita GDP have seen over the past couple centuries. However, given that (as I’ll discuss below) the evidence actually suggests that overall self-reported happiness has likely increased substantially, that suicide rates are an imperfect proxy for general happiness, and that, contrary to many conservatives’ belief that the modern world has extremely high or anomalous suicide rates, suicide rates seem within the same ballpark as they were in the past, this doesn’t seem like a strong critique of the thesis that society has gotten better over the past couple hundred years. Of particular importance, it at least doesn’t suggest at a first glance that society has gotten noticeably or much *worse* on net, as the OP acknowledges/agrees. (Though this raises a lot of the broader philosophical questions that I’m trying to defer discussing until I’ve dealt with the more strictly empirical issues.)

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    • (II) Depression

      Pinker writes:

      Everyone occasionally suffers from depression, and some people are stricken with major depression, in which the sadness and hopelessness last more than two weeks and interfere with carrying on with life. In recent decades, more people have been diagnosed with depression, especially in younger cohorts, and the conventional wisdom is captured in the tag line of a recent public television documentary: “A silent epidemic is ravaging the nation and killing our kids.” We have just seen that the nation is not suffering from an epidemic of unhappiness, loneliness, or suicide, so an epidemic of depression seems unlikely, and it turns out to be an illusion.

      Consider one oft-cited study, which implausibly claimed that every cohort from the GI Generation through the Baby Boomers was more depressed than the one before.63 The investigators reached that conclusion by asking people of different ages to recall times when they had been depressed. But that made the study a hostage to memory: the longer ago an episode took place, the less likely it is that a person will recall it, especially (as we saw in chapter 4) if the episode was unpleasant. That creates an illusion that recent periods and younger cohorts are more vulnerable to depression. Such a study is also hostage to mortality. As the decades pass, depressed people are more likely to die of suicide and other causes, so the old people who remain in a sample are the mentally healthier ones, making it seem as if everyone who was born long ago is mentally healthier.

      Another distorter of history is a change in attitudes. Recent decades have seen outreach programs and media campaigns designed to increase awareness and decrease the stigma of depression. Drug companies have advertised a pharmacopoeia of antidepressants directly to consumers. Bureaucracies demand that people be diagnosed with some disorder before they can receive entitlements such as therapy, government services, and a right against discrimination. All these inducements could make people more likely to report that they are depressed.

      At the same time, the mental health professions, and perhaps the culture at large, has been lowering the bar for what counts as a mental illness. The list of disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association tripled between 1952 and 1994, when it included almost three hundred disorders, including Avoidant Personality Disorder (which applies to many people who formerly were called shy), Caffeine Intoxication, and Female Sexual Dysfunction. The number of symptoms needed to justify a diagnosis has fallen, and the number of stressors that may be credited with triggering one has increased. As the psychologist Richard McNally has noted, “Civilians who underwent the terror of World War II . . . , would surely be puzzled to learn that having a wisdom tooth extracted, encountering obnoxious jokes at work, or giving birth to a healthy baby after an uncomplicated delivery can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”64 By the same shift, the label “depression” today may be applied to conditions that in the past were called grief, sorrow, or sadness.

      Psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to sound the alarm against this “disease mongering,” “concept creep,” “selling sickness,” and “expanding empire of psychopathology.”65 In her 2013 article “Abnormal Is the New Normal,” the psychologist Robin Rosenberg noted that the latest version of the DSM could diagnose half the American population with a mental disorder over the course of their lives.66

      The expanding empire of psychopathology is a first-world problem, and in many ways is a sign of moral progress.67 Recognizing a person’s suffering, even with a diagnostic label, is a form of compassion, particularly when the suffering can be alleviated. One of psychology’s best-kept secrets is that cognitive behavior therapy is demonstrably effective (often more effective than drugs) in treating many forms of distress, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, insomnia, and the symptoms of schizophrenia.68 With mental disorders making up more than 7 percent of the global burden of disability (major depression alone making up 2.5 percent), that’s a lot of reducible suffering.69 The editors of the journal Public Library of Science: Medicine recently called attention to “the paradox of mental health”:

      “Over-medicalization and over-treatment in the wealthy West, and under-recognition and under-treatment in the rest of the world.”70

      With the widening net of diagnosis, the only way to tell whether more people are depressed these days is to administer a standardized test of depressive symptoms to nationally representative samples of people of different ages over many decades. No study has met this gold standard, but several have applied a constant yardstick to more circumscribed populations.71 Two intensive, long-term studies in rural counties (one in Sweden, one in Canada) signed up people born between the 1870s and the 1990s and tracked them from the middle to the late 20th century, embracing staggered lives that spanned more than a century. Neither found signs of a long-term rise in depression.72

      There have also been several meta-analyses (studies of studies). Twenge found that from 1938 to 2007, college students scored increasingly higher on the Depression scale of the MMPI, a common personality test.73 That doesn’t necessarily mean that more of the students suffered from major depression, though, and the increase may have been inflated by the broader range of people who went to college over those decades. Moreover, other studies (some by Twenge herself) have found no change or even a decline in depression, especially for younger ages and cohorts and in later decades.74 A recent one entitled “Is There an Epidemic of Child or Adolescent Depression?” vindicated Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word no. The authors explain, “Public perception of an ‘epidemic’ may arise from heightened awareness of a disorder that was long under-diagnosed by clinicians.”75 And the title of the biggest meta-analysis to date, which looked at the prevalence of anxiety and depression between 1990 and 2010 in the entire world, did not leave readers in suspense: “Challenging the Myth of an ‘Epidemic’ of Common Mental Disorders.” The authors concluded, “When clear diagnostic criteria are applied, there is no evidence that the prevalence of common mental disorders is increasing.”76

      So, pertinently here, a major potential issue with a lot of the long-term depression data that the OP cited is that it wasn’t based on standardized tests of symptoms among nationally representative samples. Consequently, it may be biased either by more expansive diagnoses by clinicians or by decreased cultural stigma around depression, both of which I think are highly likely to have occurred over ~1930-2010, and no solid conclusions about long-run trends can be drawn. That’s not to deny e.g. that it looks like there’s been a recent increase in depression among young people, particularly young women, in the US, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued in their recent book The Coddling of the American Mind, just that we have no way of confidently knowing how modern society on net compares in terms of prevalence of depression with 75 or 100 or 200 or 500 etc. years ago.

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    • (III) Self-Reported Happiness

      This is the section of the OP that I think has both the most serious empirical flaws (by omission) and the most relevance to Pinker’s overall argument about societal progress. Pinker writes:

      Let’s agree that the citizens of developed countries are not as happy as they ought to be, given the fantastic progress in their fortunes and freedom. But are they not happier at all? Have their lives become so empty that they are choosing to end them in record numbers? Are they suffering through an epidemic of loneliness, in defiance of the mind-boggling number of opportunities to connect with one another? Is the younger generation, ominously for our future, crippled by depression and mental illness? As we shall see, the answer to each of these questions is an emphatic no.

      Evidence-free pronouncements about the misery of mankind are an occupational hazard of the social critic. In the 1854 classic Walden, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How a recluse living in a cabin on a pond could know this was never made clear, and the mass of men beg to differ. Eighty-six percent of those who are asked about their happiness in the World Values Survey say they are “rather happy” or “very happy,” and on average the respondents in the 150-country World Happiness Report 2016 judged their lives to be on the top half of the ladder from worst to best.18 Thoreau was a victim of the Optimism Gap (the “I’m OK, They’re Not” illusion), which for happiness is more like a canyon. People in every country underestimate the proportion of their compatriots who say they are happy, by an average of 42 percentage points.19

      What about the historical trajectory? Easterlin identified his intriguing paradox in 1973, decades before the era of big data. Today we have much more evidence on wealth and happiness, and it shows there is no Easterlin paradox. Not only are richer people in a given country happier, but people in richer countries are happier, and as countries get richer over time, their people get happier. The new understanding has come from several independent analyses, including ones by Angus Deaton, the World Values Survey, and the World Happiness Report 2016.20 My favorite comes from the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers and may be summarized in a graph. Figure 18-1 plots ratings of average life satisfaction against average income (on a logarithmic scale) for 131 countries, each represented by a dot, together with the relationship of life satisfaction to income among the citizens of each country, represented by an arrow impaling the dot. [See the charts on the link between happiness and income in the Our World in Data article on Happiness if you don’t have the book, they’re basically the same]

      Several patterns jump out. The most immediate is the absence of a cross-national Easterlin paradox: the cloud of arrows is stretched along a diagonal, which indicates that the richer the country, the happier its people. Bear in mind that the income scale is logarithmic; on a standard linear scale, the same cloud would rise steeply from the left end and bend over toward the right. This means that a given number of extra dollars boosts the happiness of people in a poor country more than the happiness of people in a rich country, and that the richer a country is, the more additional money its people need to become happier still. (It’s one of the reasons that the Easterlin paradox appeared in the first place: with the noisier data of the era, it was hard to spot the relatively small rise in happiness at the high end of the income scale.) But with either scale, the line never flattens out, as it would if people needed only some minimum amount of income to see to their basic needs and anything extra made them no happier. As far as happiness is concerned, Wallis Simpson was half-right when she said, “You can’t be too rich or too thin.”

      Most strikingly, the slopes of the arrows are similar to each other, and identical to the slope for the swarm of arrows as a whole (the dashed gray line lurking behind the swarm). That means that a raise for an individual relative to that person’s compatriots adds as much to his or her happiness as the same increase for their country across the board. This casts doubt on the idea that people are happy or unhappy only in comparison to the Joneses. Absolute income, not relative income, is what matters most for happiness (a conclusion that’s consistent with the finding discussed in chapter 9 on the irrelevance of inequality to happiness).21 These are among a number of findings that weaken the old belief that happiness adapts to ambient conditions like the eye, returns to a set point, or remains stationary as people vainly stride on a hedonic treadmill. Though people often do rebound from setbacks and pocket their good fortune, their happiness takes a sustained hit from trials like unemployment or disability, and a sustained boost from gifts like a good marriage or immigrating to a happier country.22 And contrary to an earlier belief, winning the lottery does, over the long term, make people happier.23

      Since we know that countries get richer over time (chapter 8), we can think of figure 18-1 as a freeze-frame in a movie showing humanity getting happier over time. This increase in happiness is yet another indicator of human progress, and among the most important of all. Of course this snapshot is not an actual longitudinal chronicle in which people all over the world are polled for centuries and we plot their happiness over time; such data do not exist. But Stevenson and Wolfers scoured the literature for what longitudinal studies there were, and found that in eight out of nine European countries, happiness increased between 1973 and 2009 in tandem with the country’s rise in GDP per capita.24 A confirmation for the world as a whole comes from the World Values Survey, which found that in forty-five out of fifty-two countries, happiness increased between 1981 and 2007.25 The trends over time close the books on the Easterlin paradox: we now know that richer people within a country are happier, that richer countries are happier, and that people get happier as their countries get richer (which means that people get happier over time)…

      Among the countries that punch below their wealth in happiness is the United States. Americans are by no means unhappy: almost 90 percent rate themselves as at least “pretty happy,” almost a third rate themselves as “very happy,” and when they are asked to place themselves on the ten-rung ladder from the worst to the best possible life, they choose the seventh rung.29 But in 2015 the United States came in at thirteenth place among the world’s nations (trailing eight countries in Western Europe, three in the Commonwealth, and Israel),even though it had a higher average income than all of them but Norway and Switzerland.30 (The United Kingdom, whose citizens place themselves at a happy 6.7 rungs up from the worst possible life, came in at twenty-third place.)

      Also, the United States hasn’t gotten systematically happier over the years (another decoy that led to the premature announcement of the Easterlin paradox, because the United States is also the country with happiness data that stretch back the farthest). American happiness has fluctuated within a narrow band since 1947, deflecting in response to various recessions, recoveries, malaises, and bubbles, but with no consistent rise or fall. One dataset shows a slight decline in American happiness from 1955 to 1980, followed by a rise through 2006; another shows a slight decline in the proportion saying they are “very happy” starting in 1972 (though even there the sum of those who say they are “very happy” and “pretty happy” has not changed).31

      The American happiness stagnation doesn’t falsify the global trend in which happiness increases with wealth, because when we look at changes in a rich country over a few decades we’re peeping at a restricted range of the scale. As Deaton points out, a trend that is obvious when you look at the effects of a fiftyfold difference in income between, say, Togo and the United States, representing a quarter-millennium of economic growth, may be submerged in the noise when you look for the effects of, say, a twofold difference in income within a single country over just twenty years of economic growth.32 Also, the United States has seen a greater rise in income inequality than the countries of Western Europe (chapter 9), and its growth in GDP may have been enjoyed by a smaller proportion of the populace.33 Speculating about American exceptionalism is an endlessly fascinating pastime, but whatever the reason, happyologists agree that the United States is an outlier from the global trend in subjective well-being.34

      Another reason it can be hard to make sense of happiness trends for individual countries is that a country is a collection of tens of millions of human beings who just happen to occupy a patch of land. It’s remarkable that we can find anything in common when we average them, and we shouldn’t be surprised to find that as time passes, different segments of the population go in different directions, sometimes jerking the average around, sometimes canceling each other out. Over the past thirty-five years African Americans have been getting much happier while American whites have gotten a bit less happy.35 Women tend to be happier than men, but in Western countries the gap has shrunk, with men getting happier at a faster rate than women. In the United States it has reversed outright, as women got unhappier while men stayed more or less the same.36

      The biggest complication in making sense of historical trends, though, is one that we came across in chapter 15: the distinction between changes across the life cycle (age), in the zeitgeist (period), and over the generations (cohort).37 Without a time machine, it’s logically impossible to disentangle the effects of age, cohort, and period completely, to say nothing of their interactions. If, for example, fifty-year-olds were miserable in 2005, we couldn’t tell whether the Baby Boomers had a hard time dealing with middle age, the Baby Boomers had a hard time dealing with the new millennium, or the new millennium was a hard time to be middle-aged. But with a dataset that embraces multiple generations and decades, together with a few assumptions about how quickly people and times can change, one can average the scores for a generation over the years, for the entire population at each year, and for the population at each age, and make reasonably independent estimates of the trajectory of the three factors over time. That in turn allows us to look for two different versions of progress: people of all ages can become better off in recent periods, or younger cohorts can be better off than older ones, lifting the population as they replace them.

      People tend to get happier as they get older (an age effect), presumably because they overcome the hurdles of embarking on adulthood and develop the wisdom to cope with setbacks and to put their lives in perspective.38 (They may pass through a midlife crisis on the way, or take a final slide in the last years of old age.)39 Happiness fluctuates with the times, especially the changing economy—not for nothing do economists call a composite of the inflation rate and the unemployment rate the Misery Index—and Americans have just dug themselves out of a trough that followed the Great Recession.40

      The pattern across the generations also has ups and downs. In two large samples, Americans born in every decade from the 1900s through the 1940s lived happier lives than those in the preceding cohort, presumably because the Great Depression left a scar on the generations who came of age as it deepened. The rise leveled off and then declined a bit with the Baby Boomers and early Generation X, the last generation that was old enough to allow the researchers to disentangle cohort from period.41 In a third study which continues to the present (the General Social Survey), happiness also dipped among the Baby Boomers but fully rebounded in Gen X and the Millennials.42 So while every generation agonizes about the kids today, younger Americans have in fact been getting happier. (As we saw in chapter 12, they have also become less violent and less druggy.) That makes three segments of the population that have become happier amid the American happiness stagnation: African Americans, the successive cohorts leading up to the Baby Boom, and young people today. The age-period-cohort tangle means that every historical change in well-being is at least three times as complicated as it appears.

      The most important point being, the OP only looked at changes within already industrialized countries since ~1950. Even within quite a few of these countries, like Germany and the UK cited in the OP, self-reported happiness has been increasing—the US seems to be something of an outlier among developed countries in terms of its wealth/happiness relationship—but the changes in those countries between circa 1950-2000 were considerably smaller, in terms of the things Pinker likes to talk about, than those between 1750–1950. And, while we don’t have the ideal long-term longitudinal data to know this for sure, the apparently very well established global relationship between and within countries between increased wealth and increased happiness and the longitudinal data we do have strongly suggests that people have probably become considerably happier over the past ~200 years as the world has gotten much richer per capita.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Conclusion

      Now that I’ve established what I agree and disagree with in the post’s treatment of the empirical facts, I’ll discuss some of the more philosophical/political interpretative issues its data raise.

      This post is framed as a critique of Pinker-style neoliberal optimism, but the review of the evidence on suicides, which is mostly the same as that in EN, seems on its face much more like, as Pinker chose to present it, a devastating rebuttal of conservative pessimism of many stripes. The OP commendably noted:

      To be clear, I am not saying, as right wingers sometimes do, that we are living in an era of unprecedented mental suffering. That conclusion is simply not supported by the data.

      Indeed, but this doesn’t seem like a marginal or ancillary conservative claim, but rather a central and definitive one. Basically every popular alt-right figure, such as Andrew Anglin, Nick Fuentes, E. Michael Jones, Ramzpaul, Stefan Molyneux, etc., claims that life in modern society is much, much worse than it was in the past, usually because of diversity/irreligiosity/capitalism, and that we need urgently radical change completely outside the current paradigm. If suicide is taken as the supreme indicator of societal well-being, the historical and global data provides absolutely no grounds for thinking that that is the case. This is quite remarkable given how confidently and aggressively the pundits mentioned above propound their theories.

      Just look at the most popular comments *on the YouTube video of this very post:* pro-Kaczynski anti-Industrial Revolution sentiments, hypotheses (diet, exercise, religiosity) to explain a non-existent, imagined unprecedented modern spike in suicide/depression, “Reject modernity! Embrace tradition!” etc. What’s remarkable isn’t these common (in some circles) sentiments, but rather that these comments are in direct response to a video that provides no evidence supporting them and extensive evidence to the contrary.

      The perspective of the OP itself was more nuanced, but I think still fallacious:

      My own view is that some of these things improved life but others have had a strong negative effect such that the net impact of “progress” has been somewhere between neutral and modestly negative on average though this has varied somewhat by country. Moreover, the impact has not been equal across age groups. The impact on the lives of old people has been largely positive while the impact on younger people (e.g. under 45) has probably been largely negative…

      Still, especially given the enormous effort which was put in to achieving this “progress”, and the opportunity cost of these endeavors, I think anything other than a clearly positive evaluation of progress’s impact on mental well-being justifies a good deal of skepticism towards the last century and the ideologies which centered political life around further this progress.

      Moreover, because it seems implausible to suggest that thinks like running water and modern medicine haven’t had a significant positive impact on wellbeing, it seems likely that if progress as a whole has not had a significant positive impact then the basket of things which we call “progress” must contain elements which are at least as negative in their impact as, running water, and modern medicine, were positive in theirs. If true, it seems clearly important that we identify whatever these cancerous elements of ‘progress” are and begin the process of removing them. For these reasons, I think even a conclusion like “the net impact of progress has been neutral or slightly negative” has quite significant political implications.

      For one thing, as discussed above, the supposed paradox of happiness not increasing with running water/modern medicine etc. is illusory, because people in wealthier countries are, at least according to the data we have, generally much happier than people in poorer countries. (As revealed preferences of immigration patterns would suggest.) For another, while it was only briefly and cryptically alluded to here, I would really appreciate even a simple explication of what the hypothesized negative effects counter-balancing modern improvements in health, safety and convenience are. This is because I have a very difficult time imagining what the empirical evidence indicates these could even possibly, let alone credibly, be. Presumably, if this was the case, countries with the positive Industrial Revolution effects but without whatever the supposed negative effects are would have *extremely* high happiness/low suicide rates, but I’m not sure which countries you could possibly point to in which that’s the case. (If there are no currently existing countries where it’s the case, I’m then highly skeptical a priori that it could exist.)

      Take, for instance, non-white immigration/ethnic diversity, a subject this blog has discussed. There are plenty of relatively ethnically homogeneous East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and ethnically homogeneous Eastern European white countries like Poland and Hungary. They don’t have astronomically better self-reported happiness or suicide rates than Western/Northern Europe/North America/Australasia—indeed, they sometimes have worse. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t valid reasons to oppose immigration/diversity, just that there are no, it would seem to me, valid reasons to suppose that it has some sort of profound importance for the big picture benefits of modernity, as the OP suggests. And I could make similar points with regard to religiosity or capitalism or gender roles or whatever else most alt-right conservatives would point to as the alleged cause of Western society’s supposed disastrous decline.

      More abstractly, even if the average level of happiness had simply stayed the same instead of probably increased, and even if suicide rates have remained constant, I think there’s one important way in which you could still contend that modernity has made life better, though Pinker doesn’t make this argument. Namely, given that the world population has increased substantially, from ~1 billion in 1800 to ~7.7 billion today, if people have the same amount of happiness on average, and if that happiness is a net positive for their lives such that they’re glad they were born, but there are more people, then the total amount of well-being in the world has increased, if all else is equal. This raises the thorny issues of population ethics and Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion,” but I think a mild form of natalism is compatible with most people’s moral intuitions. (Again, all else being equal, and I think Pinker’s conclusions are valid even without this consideration.)

      There’s also (related to above) a potential issue in that people who die prematurely may have much less total happiness than they would if they’d lived a longer life, so as long as they would judge their lives worth living given the choice, the massive increase in life expectancy Pinker cites may well have produced substantial additional happiness as a result even if nothing else had changed.

      Finally, I’d conclude that I think Pinker is right about the political implications. All things considered, we have a pretty good system now by historical or international standards. Not to say that there shouldn’t be change, but there’s no reason why we should expect or want that change to be radical, all-encompassing or instantaneous. There’s no obvious model of a present or past society being *much* better by objective metrics that would justify radical or revolutionary change to replicate it. If radicals say that they will quickly create a much better society that no one has ever before created once they’re given absolute power, history suggests that they should not be believed or trusted. (And this is a criticism that both I and Pinker make of the left as much or more than of the right.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s important to recognize that those RW figures mentioned don’t exclusively back their philosophical worldviews with mere empirical claims. That an indicator such as suicide (or the far more nebulous “happiness”) has gone up or down doesn’t tell us much about the overall trajectory of society. To point to the benefits specific technologies have provided us with likewise doesn’t mean much at all re the social order.

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    • “Consider e.g. the gender disparity in suicide rates, which is, according to OWID, roughly 2:1 male:female…I don’t think it would be logical to conclude that men generally are living lives 2x worse than those of women.”
      This statement presumes a lot. First, it doesn’t have to be either/or. It could be driven by biological sex differences, and differences in environmental factors affecting psychological well-being, which could in part proceed from the biological sex differences. Secondly, the relationship needn’t be linear. Are there twice as many men whose circumstances drive them to suicide than women? Who knows, but given that suicides are a minority of all deaths, it wouldn’t be difficult for this to be true. We know men generally have lower life expectancy than women in western countries, which could also be due in part to biological sex differences, but also differences in life circumstances, which themselves could be related to biological sex differences.

      The difference in the age composition of suicides is actually quite disturbing, and seemingly unaddressed by Pinker. This wouldn’t be inconsistent with my above speculation regarding declining religiosity, as younger generations are generally less religious, but it doesn’t really provide strong evidence for it, either.

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      • Consider e.g. the gender disparity in suicide rates, which is, according to OWID, roughly 2:1 male:female…I don’t think it would be logical to conclude that men generally are living lives 2x worse than those of women.”

        This statement presumes a lot. First, it doesn’t have to be either/or. It could be driven by biological sex differences, and differences in environmental factors affecting psychological well-being, which could in part proceed from the biological sex differences. Secondly, the relationship needn’t be linear. Are there twice as many men whose circumstances drive them to suicide than women? Who knows, but given that suicides are a minority of all deaths, it wouldn’t be difficult for this to be true. We know men generally have lower life expectancy than women in western countries, which could also be due in part to biological sex differences, but also differences in life circumstances, which themselves could be related to biological sex differences.

        All very true, and all perfectly consistent with my point, which was that the massive difference between men and women in terms of suicide rates doesn’t seem to suggest (at least from my point of view) that there’s a comparably massive general difference in terms of life-satisfaction/happiness between men and women generally. (Either in terms of the data or common sense.) It’s perfectly possible that, along the lines you suggest, say, the worst-off 1% of men are worse off on average than the worst 1% of women, or something, and that certainly might be significant, but I don’t think it’s ipso facto very informative about the situation of men vs. women generally.

        This (among other issues I raised) demonstrates why I don’t see suicide rates as a really reliable barometer of how society as a whole is doing.

        The difference in the age composition of suicides is actually quite disturbing, and seemingly unaddressed by Pinker.

        Pinker didn’t discuss it (though he discussed some of the trends w.r.t. self-reported happiness by age). He does, however, discuss the very thorny issues of trying to separate out cohort vs. age vs. zeitgest effects in data over time. (E..g If suicide rates are rising among 50-60 year old Baby Boomers in 2010, does that mean that suicide rates are rising for 50-60 year olds or for people born from 1950-1960?) So I’d be careful of drawing strong off-hand conclusions about those kinds of changes by age unless there’s a very careful analysis of the data.

        And, at least so far, it hasn’t made much of a difference to the overall suicide rates, so I don’t see that it’s very disturbing.

        This wouldn’t be inconsistent with my above speculation regarding declining religiosity, as younger generations are generally less religious, but it doesn’t really provide strong evidence for it, either.

        Maybe; whatever the effect of religiosity on suicide, and there are some meta-analyses suggesting that it is indeed an inverse/protective one, it doesn’t seem to be very large in a global sense. (E.g. Utah, one of the most religious US states, also has one of the highest suicide rates.)

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  3. Sean,
    You could’ve looked at self-harm (!), but you forgotten, it seems! (it has increased a lot.)
    Also, could’ve looked at taking meds and pills for mental health. (Immediate problem: this stuff was not as accessible and as cheap in the past.)
    And since the ‘official religion’ in the US is how good non-White non-cisgerder non-hetero non-males feel, you could’ve looked at it but for our favour: for instance, it’s well-known women are more deppressed now than when they were so-called “oppressed”… I wonder if the same holds water for gays.

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  4. Hello
    Im non-white black so i may not be welcome here.

    Im from a isolated place too
    I have lately been looking on the internet and i have diverted into reading on west nationalism the white people, even if I dont understand completely. Ive been not aware of it and this interest has sort of made me feel inadequate. I understand your proudness the west has achieved much great things and glad to share. ITs been hard for me now to look on my other people or me and feel bad. Could be silly but also thinking about myself is it bad to feel that? not being great at who one is I mean. Im told that comparing to other greats without a plan isnt useful but I want to do good and its been confusing if it may be pointless (studying plumping and supporting family).

    Sorry for bad english or for asking wrong people. Im new at this, Im reading on WN nad ive been curious

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    • There is IQ variation within races, you can find black people, even racially pure ones who are smarter than the average white if you cherry pick, blah blah, everyone is a snowflake and all that, but the point of all this isn’t “black people are bad” it’s to point out that discrimination against whites isn’t justified and that the ideologies that promote doing so are doomed to fail and cause misery.

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  5. Could suicide rates be impacted by the decline of religiosity among westerners, generally Christians? Christianity historically had a very negative view of suicide, and treated suicides as automatically damned. It’s possible that even those who found life full of only misery might have nonetheless chosen to endure it based on the incentives of eternal reward or punishment. Whereas now many westerners are less religious, and among those who are, many Christian sects have softened their condemnation of suicides, such that an increase in suicides could be due to a smaller proportional pool of miserable people committing suicide at a higher rate, having been “freed” from, or at least less constrained by, fears of divine retribution. But this is speculation, and even if true, it’s not clear whether this is necessarily a point in favor of the Whig View.

    It seems like Pinker tries to handwave suicide rates in much the same manner as race denialists seeking to “debunk” heritable racial differences, by pointing out that, yes, many traits or outcomes can be influenced by many different factors, and that this renders general trends moot. Changes, or the lack thereof, in aggregates over the course of decades, are not credibly explained by what the weather was like on a particular day. Perhaps stigma affects the reported rate, but without hard data on its actual impact, this remains speculation.

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  6. Great chart in the beginning from Pinker!
    Let us  put aside  Angus Deaton’s ‘Deaths from Despair’ idea, the purposeful propagandizing of credulous Whites into believing they have so much control and ability that they( and they alone) are at fault for all the economic differences in the world. Thus urged to feel guilty by a thousand commercials, news articles and demonstrations, they carelessly off themselves as per instructions. Thus a higher suicide and OD rate.
    But what about the ignored spiritual aspect? We live in the age of Economic Man. How much money do you have?  What is your number? said the TV ad from a few years ago.My guess  would be the medieval peasant who never went more than 7 miles from his church steeple, all his life, all the while grinding away in his fields for his subsistence living, was happier..spiritually, than we with our vacuum cleaner and refrigerator and espresso machine.He or she had a certainty which we have been taught to disparage as magic but others would label Faith that made him happier in the vacant moments when he was planting his wheat or bringing in his sheaves.(Whatever a sheave is?)

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  7. Pingback: How Bad Has the US Economy Become for Regular People? (1970 – 2020) | Ideas and Data

  8. Pingback: How Bad Has the US Economy Become for Regular People? (1970 – 2020) – Attack the System

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