“Everything is amazing—and nobody’s happy.”
Thus begins one of the most popular stand-up comedy bits of the past decade. That single sentence bears much of the responsibility for transforming the comedic icon Louis C.K. from a “comedian’s comedian” with a small, devoted fan base to a household name with national popularity. His most famous recitation of this rant came during an appearance on Conan, but an extended (and more profane) version appears on his 2010 album “Hilarious.”
The thrust of the monologue is that you, I, and everyone around us are spoiled brats. After all, we are surrounded by amazing technologies that provide us with a quality of life beyond anything the vast majority of humans could ever have imagined. We can connect with our friends instantaneously and traverse hundreds of miles in a single hour, just to name two modern marvels. Of course, Louis could also have mentioned air conditioning, refrigeration, medical technology, or a thousand other innovations that touch our daily lives.
But despite this cornucopia of conveniences—conveniences that most of us did nothing to help create—we are seemingly no happier. Louis hilariously mocks the “non-contributing zeros” who immediately become frustrated and indignant when their brand-new, impressive gadgetry shows the slightest sign of a glitch. He has no patience for passengers who complain about airport delays (“What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird?”) or smartphone users who lament the occasional sluggishness (“Would ya give [the signal] a second to get back from space?!”).
Any decent people, Louis argues, would spend our days falling over ourselves with gratitude and wonderment at all the creature comforts at our disposal. Instead, we are more prone than ever to whining and bemoaning our stations. What losers we all must be!
On its face, this comedic critique seems benign and on-point. Who could object to calling out the spoiled child that lurks within each one of us? But Louis’s commonsensical-sounding rant actually gestures towards a mistaken view of human nature. And the same flawed premise frequently leads both Left and Right astray.
Don’t Expect Stuff To Satisfy
Read the monologue’s punch line again: “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” What does Louis mean by “everything”? He talks exclusively about material innovations that make our lives more convenient. Every advantage of modernity he cites is something that money can buy. Consumable goods and services are amazing, but nobody’s happy! When it’s stated that way, the conclusion hardly sounds revelatory. Did anyone really expect that electronics and easy travel were sure paths to deep contentment?
If anyone did, he was fooling himself. A substantial social science literature demonstrates that self-centered materialism is far less relevant for happiness than we might imagine.
First, the “self-centered” part. Psychologists from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School have persuasively demonstrated that spending money on others brings substantially more happiness than treating ourselves to new purchases. If you have a pile of cash and you’re in the market for long-lasting satisfaction, “X” out of your Amazon.com tabs and select a charitable cause.
But the most significant determinants of life satisfaction have nothing to do with money at all. We can see this on an international scale, as academics continue to puzzle over the finding that countries that get richer do not tend to get happier. This phenomenon is linked to “hedonic adaptation,” the concept that humans are quick to adjust our expectations upwards. Today’s delightful surprise becomes tomorrow’s baseline. Louis C.K. encapsulates this in the man who becomes outraged when the brand-new in-flight WiFi crashes: “How quickly the world owes him something that he knew existed only ten seconds ago!”
The same trend holds at the individual level. Once abject poverty is taken off the table, the data clearly show that one’s level of material prosperity is not a major determinant of life satisfaction. It just isn’t. Arthur Brooks, a behavioral economist and my boss at the American Enterprise Institute, uses survey data to construct men who are identical in every aspect, including income, except the depth of their involvement with faith, family, community, and work. Their happiness varies wildly. If Louis is right that nobody’s happy, we can blame our underinvestment in those age-old institutions, not our failure to be grateful for gadgetry. The materialistic premise that cool stuff should mollify men’s restless hearts falls flat in the face of the evidence.
Yet Many Progressives Think In Materialistic Terms
Unfortunately, the political world seems to have missed this memo. Politicians and pundits continually imply, if not explicitly state, that spending money on people through government is morally synonymous with caring for them. In the minds of many pundits, enlarging the size and scope of the welfare stateproves you want what is best for low-income Americans. If you pause to ask such minor questions as whether a proposal would be efficient or effective, you are in danger of unmasking yourself as an uncaring Scrooge. And should you pose the even larger question of whether a transfer payment will help people lead happy and meaningful lives, well, then you’ve outed yourself as completely coldhearted.
In a sensible political conversation, the conceit that no human problem lacks a financial solution would be widely recognized as a condescending and cynical view. The alternative position—that some problems are ripe for a pecuniary fix but many others are not—would be regarded as the nuanced and humane perspective. Unfortunately, we do not have a sensible political conversation, and the popular press delights in making precisely the opposite judgment.
If one book encapsulates what the political Left thinks of conservatives, it is What’s The Matter With Kansas? by the journalist Thomas Frank. In the decade since the book’s publication, Frank’s title has become synonymous with his primary thesis: Conservative politicians strategically use social issues to get blue-collar conservatives hot under the collar, then turn around and enact economic policies that do not actually benefit those voters. This is a perpetual frustration to right-thinking liberals, and a constant refrain in the op-ed pages of their right-thinking publications. How tragic that the low-income populations of red states should be so distracted by “values,” and withhold their votes from the party that would redistribute more resources to them.
What a rube one must be to prize morality more than money! Ranking one’s priorities thus used to make you honorable. Now, in the eyes of coastal cosmopolitans, it simply makes you a sucker.
Conservatives Are Often Materialistic, Too
Progressives are not the only ones building arguments on the faulty foundation of materialism. Scrambling for a rebuttal to Occupy Wall Street and the Left’s focus on inequality, many right-of-center economists have fallen in love with data on economic consumption. This chorus, which includes some impressive conservative thinkers, argues that being poor is not as bad as liberals intimate because poor people have lots of cool stuff.
In a representative op-ed from 2013, economists Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry purport to debunk the myth of middle-class stagnation using consumption data. “While income inequality might be rising when measured in dollars,” they write, “it is falling when reckoned in what’s most important—our ability to consume.” Those last seven words are telling. The authors insist that the “food, appliances, clothing and cars” available to low-income people make inequality a moot point. A 2011 Heritage Foundation report offered the same general conclusion, as its title makes painfully obvious: “Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” Plenty of other sharp economists, such as Scott Sumner, echo the point. These conservatives agree that consumption data deserve more attention than they receive.
As a matter of technical economics, they may well be right. But anyone who has glanced at the happiness literature—or interacted with real humans—can attest that high-quality possessions are no substitute for the deeply empowering sense that we are earning our own way. That we are adding value to the world around us. That we have the opportunity to climb as high as our ambitions and talents can take us. No matter what the consumption data show, trends in mobility and relative inequality will always have significant purchase on the human psyche. Any conservative wonks who think otherwise are only fooling themselves.
Both Left and Right owe America better than the false premise of materialism. Common sense, ancient wisdom, and modern research all converge to tell us that a thousand things are more important to people than the contents of our homes and our bank accounts. We should celebrate this fact. People are not money-crazed automatons. Politicians and pundits should stop talking as if we were.