Since 1960, Americans have been soaring materially and, until recently, sinking socially, according to the latest book by Dr. David Myers of the Hope College psychology faculty.
His book "The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger
in an Age of Plenty" contrasts the economic and
technological advances of the past 40 years with a decline
in America's "civic well-being," yet sees promising signs of
social and spiritual renewal.
"Here lies the American paradox," writes Myers,
who is the John Dirk Werkman Professor of Psychology. "We
now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and
double what money buys. We have espresso coffee, the World
Wide Web, sport utility vehicles, suitcases on wheels, and
caller ID. And we have more depression, more fragile
relationships, less communal commitment, more children of
children, and more violent and suicidal teens. We excel at
making a living, but often fail at making a life."
Myers draws his conclusions from hundreds of
research studies examining society from various
perspectives. Beginning in 1960 and running to the present,
he tracks the sexual revolution, the waning of marriage, the
decline in children's well-being, the increase in violence,
increased materialism and individualism, and the toxic
effects of media violence and impulsive sexuality.
Studies show that the strongest predictor of
happiness is a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate
marriage. Yet the proportion of unmarried American adults
has mushroomed from 25 percent in 1960 to 41 percent.
Some 70 percent of delinquents in long-term
correctional facilities did not consistently live with their
fathers. The nation was shocked when a dozen teens died of
gunshot at Columbine High School, but a dozen American
children now die of gunshot in every average day.
A long-term study found that men were more likely
to have been convicted of a serious crime by age 30 if at
age eight they were watching a great deal of violent
Myers recognizes that some readers may find the
book to be "liberal," others "conservative," but he resists
such labels. "If it is 'liberal' to report the toxic
consequences of materialism, economic individualism, and
income inequality, then the liberalism is in the data I
report," he writes. "If it is 'conservative' to report that
sexual fidelity, co-parenting, positive media, and faith
help create a social ecology that nurtures healthy children
and communities, then the conservatism resides in the
Myers doesn't call for a return to the nonexistent
good-old-days--a time when in reality women and minorities
had less freedom, life was shorter, and the rising economic
tide had not yet lifted most families to today?s levels of
What he does seek is social and spiritual renewal.
There is room, he believes, for both individual identity and
Myers sees hopeful signs. One Gallup poll found
that the number of Americans feeling a need to "experience
spiritual growth" rose from 54 percent in 1994 to 82 percent
in 1998. Since 1994, rates of violence, teen suicide, and
teen pregnancy have all begun to subside from record highs.
The national dialogue, he believes, is now shifting away
from the expansion of personal rights and toward enhancement
of communal civility, away from efforts to raise self-esteem
and toward attempts to rouse social responsibility, away
from "whose values?" and toward "our values."
"At the dawn of a new millennium we stand where
two roads diverge," Myers writes.
"One continues down the well-traveled track of
radical individualism and materialism leading toward a
deepened cultural crisis. As 'me-thinking' continues to
prevail over 'we thinking,' as the rich-poor gap continues
to widen, as the media continue to promote coercive human
relations and uncommitted sex, as marriage continues to
disintegrate, as children's well-being continues to
nosedive, and if violence rebounds with the next recession,
calls for imposed order will likely increase."
"However, there is also a less traveled road we
are beginning to steer toward," he writes. "As the
slumbering public consciousness awakens, something akin to
the earlier social reform movements the civil rights
movement, the feminist movement, the environmental
movement seems to be germinating."
"A new millennium calls for a new vision," says
Father Theodore Hesburgh, retired Notre Dame president.
"'The American Paradox' gives us such a new vision of
American and we would do well to read it seriously."
Myers' research and writings have appeared in a
dozen books and in five dozen periodicals, from "Science" to
"Scientific American." His textbooks for introductory and
social psychology are studied at nearly 1,000 colleges and
universities. He has been a member of the Hope faculty
"The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age
of Plenty," is published by Yale University Press.
Free excerpts are available. Essays adapted from the book are slated to appear in the April 24 issue of "Christianity Today" and as a subject for national online discussion starting April 1.