Standard of Living

“The standard of living has never been higher.”

You hear this a lot, especially from conservatives. The average person has never been wealthier, never has lived longer, never has had so many conveniences and so few dangers. His jobs and homes are more comfortable. He has access to high-quality medical care. The poorest of the poor (in the west) are in no danger of starving: quite the reverse, as obesity is the great killer of the poor, not starvation. We have wondrous devices that our ancestors could never have dreamed of; telephones, computers, air-conditioning, refrigeration, airplanes, and so on.

All of this is very true. If having plentiful food, shelter, comfort, opportunity, and so on is taken as the standard of living, then indeed it’s the highest it has ever been by a huge margin.

The trouble is, we don’t seem very happy about it.

Depression is rampant, as are various forms of addiction. Suicide rates are higher than they’ve ever been in recorded history, and what is more, are increasingly common among young people: teenagers and even children. There is also a trend of teenagers murdering their schoolmates (apparently, we just had another one in Texas). Among adults, there’s increasing civil unrest and whole sections of our cities are effectively third-world communities.

I could list more examples, and most likely so could you of how miserable we are as a society. But I think one of the big indicators is the self-help industry. Books, websites, seminars, an entire branch of the economy is founded on people trying to find some kind of satisfaction and sense in their lives.

None of these things applied to our ancestors; the ones living under the shadow of starvation, working with their hands, and bereft of our comforts. I’m not going to offer a rosy image of a jolly life on the farm or anything, but at the very least the pre-modern world seems to have shown far fewer signs of general dissatisfaction than we do.However miserable we would be in their shoes, reading history I don’t really get the impression that they were miserable. In fact, in the midst of their difficult lives, they created the very cultures that we love to ape and take inspiration from to this day. Every time you go an ethnic festival or look up various traditions around the world, whatever the ethnicity, remember that those all came from people with what we would regard as an extremely low standard of living (so did our civilization in general, but we’ll let that slide). Those jolly Slavic dances? Those colorful Indian cloths? Those folk songs? All from people living in materially worse conditions than most of us can imagine.

In fact, you might put it that we spend more time and money and effort trying to get what they had than they ever spent trying to get what we have.

My point isn’t that the old ways were certainly better. Only that if a higher standard of living seems to leave us less happy and less fruitful than people with a much lower standard, it seems to me we might need to re-examine the standard.

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